I discovered audiobooks about a year after I graduated from college. At the time I had an intense full time job — six days a week, mostly nine to five, on my feet in a kitchen. By the time I battled my way home through rush hour traffic, it was time to eat dinner, shower, and fall asleep. I don’t remember exactly when or why the idea occurred to me, but I found myself at the nearest library one Sunday, browsing the audiobook shelf. After all, I had a radio adaptor in my car that could plug into my iPod, and I was getting tired of both my music collection and all of the local radio stations.
The first audiobook I selected was decent, but I liked it for the voice of Simon Jones more than for the actual story. I’m a nervous driver and my stress level goes up when I’m surrounded by other cars in that gray area between traffic jam and actually going the speed limit — but my stress level in rush hour traffic went down if I had a book to listen to. It was soothing. Plus, even when not driving I usually can’t read in the car without getting queasy. Not a problem anymore as long as I bring my headphones along on road trips, or if the people I’m riding with are game. (That’s how I got my mom into the Hunger Games series.)
The real revelation came when I realized I could listen to books not only in the car, but while I worked as well. Once I planned out what I needed to do for the week and/or day, the rest was just a matter of plugging in and getting it done. It was dull and I felt ground down by the daily repetition. Having something engaging to listen to made a huge difference. You know how sometimes you can get stuck on a negative feedback loop of thinking about how much your feet hurt, and the headache you’re starting to get, and is it time to go on break yet? Audiobooks caught and held my attention in a way that music couldn’t always sustain, drowning that negativity out.
The most striking difference from print media, for me, leapt out with any books that included dialects and accents I wasn’t familiar with. The Nac Mac Feegle in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld speak in a mix of English, Glaswegian dialect, and elements of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, resulting in sentences that look like this:
“An’ things ha’ come to a pretty pass, ye ken, if people are going to leave stuff like that aroound where innocent people could accidentally smash the door doon and lever the bars aside and take the big chain off’f the cupboard and pick the lock and drink it!”
Now that I’ve heard it read by someone else I can look at it and hear it in my head just fine. In fact, research suggests that reading and listening comprehension are quite similar.
“For example,1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension – suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well, also. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.
The way this is usually interpreted is that once you are good at decoding letters into sound, which most of us are by the time we’re in 5th or 6th grade, the comprehension is the same whether it’s spoken or written,” explained University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham.” (x)
Based on my own experience of being read to by my parents as a kid, I would agree. A lot of learning a language, whether spoken or written, has to do with knowing how to listen to it. A lot of my writing comes out however it sounds in my head more than any conscious knowledge of the rules of grammar. And though the print books vs. audiobooks experience does have its differences, my experience is that they both:
- Slow down the heart rate and eases tension in your muscles
- Help you better understand your thoughts and feelings
- Stimulate your mind, exercising your brain
- Feed your imagination, helping you come up with more creative solutions to your problems
- Expand your knowledge, which can help you better deal with difficult situations
- Improve your memory
- Better your analytical thinking skills
- Entertain you in a deeper and more meaningful way than most movies, TV, shows, and media content, helping to take your mind off your worries
- By showing you the effects that people’s actions can have, even when these people are fictional, mere characters in a story, helps you take better decisions yourself (x)
I’ve omitted two from the list, because “Forces you to be still” and “Focuses your attention” aren’t as true with audiobooks. Whether driving or doing work with headphones on, listening to books can focus your attention, but it’s still possible to multi-task in a way that you just can’t do with reading print. I’ve found that listening to audiobooks while doing straightforward tasks still let me focus on the task at hand, making me less likely to zone out or become bored and in the end I am more productive overall.
Audiobooks also allowed me to catch up on some of the classics I hadn’t read yet, and have some fun. I listened to Pride & Prejudice and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies back to back. I discovered authors that I’ve never heard of before but really enjoy, like Sarah Waters, Nancy Garden, Robin McKinley, and Garth Nix. Some of these new discoveries came to me through browsing Goodreads, but a lot came from the classic “What’s on the shelf? What looks interesting?” strategy. And I’ve even gotten through books that I wouldn’t have had the patience for in print, like Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Repair.
Print books will always hold a special place in my little bookworm heart, and I’ll always keep a full bookshelf or three around for a rainy day. But I love audiobooks too.
How about you? Do you have a preference for one or the other? If you have a published book out there, would you consider putting a recording of it out there as well to make your work more accessible to the busy commuter?