Audiobooks Aren’t Cheating
This morning I went to see my chiropractor. He’s a generally nice guy, we’ve got kids about the same age. He knows what I do and asks me if it’s going to be a slouching over my desk day, or chasing after a large, strong, active, three-year-old day. Basically, how am I going to undo all his work.
Today he mentioned that he doesn’t read fiction much. He told me he appreciates it but in the free time he’s got he’d rather be running or biking or out on his kayak. He just doesn’t handle sitting still for any more than a few minutes, not long enough to really get into a book. Such a harsh thing to say to a writer when you have your thumbs jabbed into their lower back.
I mentioned audiobooks and his comment was ‘that feels like cheating’ which really summed up a lot of the underlying bias against audiobooks, while ignoring the last 100,000 years of human evolution.
For a long time, audiobooks were considered only for the elderly, the visually impaired, or long distance truck drivers. So ageism, ableism, or socioeconomic profiling.* Basically, if you listened to an audio book it meant you couldn’t read and something was wrong with you.** And if you could read and listened to audiobooks, well that was cheating.
In the last few years publishing has finally caught up with the music industry and realized that everyone is walking around with a supercomputer capable of storing thousands of minutes of audio files. No longer forced to put out big plastic binders with tapes or CDs, audiobooks have become big business. Even small publishers are putting out the money to get their top sellers converted into audiobooks.
But even there, audiobooks seem to have fallen into the cult of efficiency and missed that 100,000 years of evolution. Do to my partner’s work I was able to get my kid into a nice preschool. Maybe not Manhattan, millionaire, five year waiting list, nice but still pretty nice. However, this means her friend’s parents are not ‘my kind of people’. The other moms do pickups in power suits and five inch heels.*** I’m in my Doctor Who t-shirts, jeans, and obviously don’t have a haircare regime.
From the quick, polite, small talk conversations I’ve had while waiting for the kids to get their shoes on many of these moms don’t read books and they have a weird pride in that. They listen to audiobooks while they’re at the gym, or jogging, or preparing their fancy, organic, paleo, locally sourced smoothies in the morning. The implication being that just ‘reading a book’ is somehow an inefficient use of time.****
And the storyteller in me quietly screams. And we come back to my argument with my chiropractor. Audiobooks aren’t cheating. Out of 4 million years of human evolution and roughly, debatably, 100,000 years of what could be considered modern speech, reading and writing only popped up about five thousand years ago, and the concept of universal literacy is only a hundred years old.
We have not evolved to read. We have evolved to listen to stories. To sit around a campfire and be told stories, focused on only that, then turn around and tell our own. Terry Pratchett commented that once he could no longer type that simply speaking his stories to his assistants or even the computer felt very natural. It is after all how people have been telling stories for a hundred thousand years.
And it’s how we’ve been ingesting and gathering our stories for just as long. So, no, audiobooks aren’t cheating. They’re not for ‘a certain type of person’. They are merely a small modern twist on something very, very old.
*I like my chiropractor but he’s an upper middleclass, white, South African, male. There are a lot of little unconscious -isms we’re working on. Got to use baby steps, especially while in the middle of having your neck adjusted.
**As a dyslexic the fact that audiobooks seemed limited only to things my grandmother would like drove me nuts.
***Most of the dads seem to be building contractors. Lots of white trucks with business names that involve the word Luxury followed by some room in the house.
****If you are a book lover you’ve probably had this conversation, at least in your head. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Reading.” “Just reading?” “Yes.” “Oh. I’m going to the gym/shops/party/mountain biking.” “I’m going to Alqualondë. Fuck you. I win.”