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Audiobooks are not lesser versions of reading and are not only for “successful people.”

James Tate Hill

May 1, 2019, 7:39am

One of the welcome developments of the recent audiobooks boom, particularly for those of us with visual impairments or print disabilities, has been fewer people asking if they count as reading. Friends on social media still apologize for listening to a book rather than reading it, but this happens less frequently than it once did. I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, to find a strange new criticism of the format in a recent piece published by The Baffler called “Successful People Listen to Audio Books.”

Half of all Americans have listened to an audiobook in the past year, according to Publishers Weekly, citing a recent survey commissioned by the Audio Publishers Association. In “Successful People Listen to Audio Books,” Nora Caplan-Bricker places herself in that majority, but she does so with regret rather than enthusiasm. Because her audio reading most often coincides with other tasks, cleaning or exercise, Caplan-Bricker has come to regard it less as an escape than an encroachment on her down time. She views her Audible app “as the buddy our tech overlords have granted me in the isolation that they help to impose.” One of the tech overlords to whom she’s referring is Amazon, who bought Audible in 2008, the biggest beneficiary of rising audio book sales.

Connecting Amazon and Audible to the recent success of audiobooks isn’t wrong. At the same time, dismissing the audiobook because of who sells most of them is like refusing your social security check because Donald Trump is in the White House. Audiobook lovers who don’t want to support Amazon can buy them from other places. One popular alternative is Libro.FM, where purchases help support an independent bookstore of your choice. As of this writing, they have partnered with nearly seven hundred bookstores across the country. Public libraries have also allowed patrons to check out digital audiobooks for the past several years.

Caplan-Bricker recalls the first bull market for audiobooks in the 1980s, when they were books on tape and many consumers were white-collar commuters from the suburbs, embodiments of that greed-is-good ethos that “life is work and time is money.” But if executives were a target audience for early commercial publishers of books on tape, they weren’t the only people buying them.

Nearly three quarters of current audiobook readers listen in their vehicles, per Publishers Weekly, so it’s not surprising that long-haul truckers have always been a key audience for audiobooks. A demographic few would describe as white-collar, commercial truck drivers once rented books on tape from one truck stop and return them at another across the country. As late as 2005, shortly before digital downloads would overtake cassettes and compact discs, Publishing Trends counted more than six hundred truck-stop kiosks of the Audio Adventures company (with a library of more than seven thousand titles) still in operation.

The premise of Caplan-Bricker’s argument, that we are slaves to constant activity, is the opposite of the more traditional critique of audiobooks: that they were for people too lazy to read real books. Some of these views stem from the days of abridged audiobooks, few of which survived the 1980s. In an episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza, who once watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a family of strangers to avoid reading Capote’s short novel, fakes impaired vision to get a recorded version of a book he needs to read for work. More recently, narrating the audio version of his 2015 book, Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari addresses the reader who has opted for this format as a “lazy piece of shit.” He’s joking, of course. Ha ha.

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, Caplan-Bricker does find her way to the familiar charges that “listening is too passive, too easy, essentially cheating.” She gives Sven Birkerts his usual seat on the dais of audiobook naysayers. His decades-old argument from The Gutenberg Elegies is that no aural equivalent exists for what he calls the “deep reading” of print. It’s reasonable to wonder if those who read audiobooks while doing other tasks are as deeply focused as those who are only reading, but studies that debunk the ableist claim that print is superior to audio aren’t hard to find.

In the 2016 article in The Cut, “To Your Brain, Audio Books Are Not Cheating,” University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that around the fifth grade the act of decoding printed text becomes second nature. From that age on, reading is essentially comprehension. “Researchers have studied the question of comprehension for decades, and what you find is very high correlations of reading comprehensions and listening comprehensions,” says Willingham.

Willingham and others have explained that print and audio are each more effective for different aspects of reading, and both possess overlapping qualities. They are not identical, in other words, but persistent assertions that print is more authentic are the very definition of ableism. Some of the older critiques came from traditional publishers, who feared their sales would be affected. The most recent numbers, of course, suggest otherwise. The Association of American Publishers says audiobook sales grew 37 percent in 2018 from the previous year while print sales were also up, if only slightly.

To be fair, Caplan-Bricker doesn’t explicitly agree with the timeworn criticisms of audiobooks, but neither does she refute them. By the end of her piece, what she seems to want most is more idle time, and it’s easy to sympathize with that desire. If reading a book ceases to be enjoyable, in audio or print, why keep reading? Let’s not lay blame for our busy lives at the feet of the audiobook. It has endured enough.

“Audiobooks,” writes Matthew Rubery in The Untold Story of the Talking Book, “Are for people who can’t read and for people who can’t read enough…. [They] are for those of us who hate reading. [They] are for those of us who love reading.” Print will always be available to those who prefer it. Audiobooks might not be for everyone, but for those too busy, too visually fatigued, or too disabled for print, they are less a chore than a welcome choice.

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