Audiobooks have been available to readers for nearly a century, since The American Foundation for the Blind began recording books on vinyl records in 1932, followed soon after by the Library of Congress. From cassette tapes to compact discs to digital downloads, audiobooks continue to evolve. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu editor KG shares her own audiobook experience.
When we’re children, we learn how books work before we actually learn how to read them. We learn not through our eyes but through our ears, listening intently as adults and older siblings read aloud to us. This is how we discover that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We experience an action happening, even when we can’t see movement with our eyes. We meet people and other creatures who don’t exist as we do, yet who somehow engage and delight us as if they do. And when we finally take those tidy bundles of paper and ink in our small hands and decipher the black squiggles on the pages by ourselves, it is a red-letter day indeed.
I love physical books: the way they smell, how they look, the feel of them in my hands. But recently I’ve been reminded of the pleasures of being read to. No, not by my parents or my big sister, but by well-trained voice actors who somehow manage to make six different characters sound nothing alike. I’m talking, of course, about audiobooks.
I was fortunate to have access to physical books throughout my childhood. I could read what I wanted when I wanted, without having to wait for an adult to tell me a story. The further I advanced in school, the less inclined my teachers were to read aloud anything more than a few stanzas or paragraphs. So I was in my early thirties before I sought out someone to read to me again. I was living in a city more than four hundred miles from my hometown, and trips home entailed a seven-hour drive (one way) on long, dull stretches of highway. Desperate to break up the monotony, I turned to my local library, where an entire wall of shelves was filled with audiobooks. It didn’t take long for me to discover what did and didn’t suit: Briskly paced novels worked best, while dense, intricate books didn’t. The Godfather, crime procedurals, even a romance novel? Yes! Beloved classics like Pride and Prejudice? Forgive me, dear Jane, but those are a no when one is trying to stay awake on a boring drive.
Eventually I moved closer to home, where my journey to visit family isn’t nearly long enough to complete an entire novel. My friends and colleagues at Bas Bleu told me they listen to audiobooks on long commutes, while cooking dinner and gardening, or during evening walks. I, on the other hand, couldn’t reconcile getting absorbed in a good book while simultaneously navigating unpredictable city traffic, measuring out a recipe, or trying to keep my momentum up at the gym.
My perspective shifted earlier this month, when I escaped my home-turned-home office for a socially distanced beach vacation. Facing a five-hour journey to the coast, an audiobook suddenly seemed like the perfect remedy for a solo drive. I downloaded a new gothic novel that’s been getting lots of buzz in literary circles and, as the green hills of north Georgia flattened to pineland and tidal creeks, I gave myself over to a hypnotic voice weaving a spellbinding tale of spooky houses, family secrets, and creepy patriarchs. But I returned to Atlanta with about three hours left in the story. I wasn’t sure when I would finish it; I didn’t think I could concentrate on another activity and keep up with the story. In a stroke of (good? bad?) luck, my dishwasher sprang a leak the same weekend I planned to tackle several new recipes. I listened to the audiobook while handwashing loads of dishes, folding laundry, even pruning a tree. By Sunday evening I’d finished the book—and realized it’s actually possible to combine housekeeping and reading!
I’m not giving up physical books any time soon. And I need rock and roll, not historical fiction, to motivate me through a cardio workout. But I’ve been reminded of the pleasure of listening to a good story, and it’s a treat for myself that I plan to indulge more often going forward. And who knows? My house may end up cleaner in the process!
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