Audio Books: What was Old is Again New

There is something about listening to a story that touches a chord in us. One reason for this is simple: many of our childhood memories are of adults reading (and rereading!) our favorite stories as we drifted off to sleep. While reading will always have a place for those who live to crack open a new book, listening to an audio book possesses its own pleasures. In short, the best audio books provide a unique entertainment, bringing together the best qualities of prose and speech.

While books on tape have long had its cult of fans, technology led to the recent rediscovery and renewed popularity of the recorded book format. In the 1980s and 1990, listeners who wanted to hear a book read aloud often carried cassettes with them in their cars or portable tape players. For long journeys or uninterrupted listening of a lengthy work, carrying a large book (think of John Irving’s novels) on tape might take up as much—if not more—space than its printed counterpart!

Portable mp3 players changed the listening habits of audio book enthusiasts. Instead of bulky cassettes, hours of audio could now be placed in digital format on a small, ultra-portable device. Cutting edge companies such as audible.com (founded in 1999) were quick to realize the possibilities inherent. Additionally, the recent rise in popularity of podcasts likewise demonstrated that a broad market existed for recorded prose; it was only a matter of time when those listeners hooked on downloadable content recalled the pleasure of listening to an unabridged book. With the technology finally ready for it, the audio book was soon rediscovered.

A common misconception among those unfamiliar with audio books is that they are simply a recording of a book intended for those too lazy to bother with the “real version.” If this misconception applies to you (show of hands?), check out the myriad of websites devoted to audio book news and reviews. A quick survey illustrates why this format has its staunch defenders. Tellingly, many reviewers focus specifically on the prose; they have obviously read the book first before turning their attentions to the recorded version. These readers are not looking for “an easy way out of reading” (can we finally retire this schoolmarm belief?), but looking for a complement to reading already done.

What these reviews also reveal is that audio book fans tend to be a discerning lot. The reviews often address the vocal talent present and whether the reader creates a vivid listening experience. Indeed, such reviews get quite specific; for example, rating the pace of the reading or the quality of the reader’s voice and whether said voice matches the material. An imaginative and nuanced reading can improve upon an indifferent book as much as a careless reading can mar a favored tome. The unmistakable conclusion one draws is that audio books offer a unique experience that the printed text can match but not replicate.

Although considered a new entertainment trend, the popularity of audio books appears to be no mere fad. Major book sellers and independent book stores alike devote considerable floor space top sellers and one of the advantages of audio books is that they can be sampled and bought online as well. With more of us commuting longer and working later, a ready-made audience for this phenomenon looks assured. If you think that audio books are merely a toneless recitation of something that is better left to print, do yourself a favor; shut off the radio for a week and check out an audio book. You may well get hooked!