Sunday, August 12, 2007

On audiobooks and book clubs...

So this goes back to a bookclub meeting I attended back in late July (during my hiatus I believe, that period of time as gone as Europe in Darwinia). The assigned book was A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (an excellent narrative btw, I may review it after Ender's Game). Since this was a first-person autobiographical narrative, I felt that the best way to take it in was by audiobook. This took some people in my group by surprise that I would do this, but after I explained my reasoning many agreed that I was in the right to do so. We had a great discussion about the book going on for many hours, and I was surprised at how many details I absorbed compared to the previous books I read for the group.

In general, I'm an auditory learner. I could hear mathematics from an early age, and although I could picture equations and graphs in later subjects, I often verbalized them before I visualized them. I didn't realize this until a much later age, and I wish I had realized this sooner. Actually, when I was first told this (I think while at the Academy) I denied it. Most mathematicians were visual learners, and being an auditory learner was considered a detriment to speed and accuracy. In fact IIRC out of the multitudes of mental calculators out there only two were auditory calculators (I believe both were Polish (my heritage), but cannot find a reference).

This prejudice carries over into the reading world, where in speed reading you are encouraged to avoid subvocalizing the word (i.e. reading aloud in your head), because the action of doing so causes nerve signals to be sent to the throat and back again, slowing the process down. In fact, they are right; when I skim articles for content because of this training I don't subvocalize at all, and it is very fast. But when I do this, I often read less carefully and can miss key points of what text I'm reading. When I read more slowly oftentimes I can imagine someone reading the text to me, or the book speaking to me as I read. This is just my habit, possibly spawned by my childhood experience.

My parents had a hard time getting me to read when growing up, mostly due to my stubbornness, but also my fascination with math. At 5 I could add two digit numbers on paper, but wouldn't read books without fighting. It was then that my parents did a cool thing; they got me audiobooks through Troll (Mom was a teacher so she got a discount through them). This is actually how I experienced the Hobbit for the first time; I remember spending hours upon hours listening to the story over and over. It is very endearing to me, more so than Lord of the Rings could ever be (which I read by book, slowly, methodically, and with much effort, even though I enjoyed it). Audiobooks are what finally got me into reading.

So I've never had an aversion to audiobooks or stories by audio. I often listen to Stephen Eley's Escape Pod for great stories every week, I subscribe to a ton of other podcasts, and I have several books on audio (one of which is still the Hobbit). I've even produced audiobooks for a school system before as part of my Eagle Project. So let's say I was more than a little shocked by the NYT (unfortunately now restricted) article Your Cheatin' Listenin' Ways. It amazes me in many ways how people could be so ignorant of the realities of audiobooks, and betrays some of the false reasons people attend book clubs. I'm glad that Kristine was equivalently shocked, and I'm about to provide my two cents worth. I won't be as caustic, but I also won't be as forgiving either.

First off, I'm not angry at the author of this piece, unlike Kristine who pointed this article to our group. He was simply pointing out the controversy, and it was good that he did. Personally, I wouldn't have picked up on it, and in a similar situation to Janice Raspin and Dane Frisby-Dart I would have defended the listener right there, probably to equivalent silence, or left the group if it was me who was being outed. It's a sign of a great book club that there is no derision in this regard. However, I don't think that the author of the piece has ever listened to audiobooks before. Some of the comparisons made by Mr. Newman were to the watching the movie attack, or to the privacy of being able to listen in the car, or anecdotes about the abridged version. These are comments that wouldn't come out of an audiobook listener.

Let's set in some of the real facts about audiobooks:

First off, no one who regularly listens to audiobooks wants the abridged version. This is similar to the sickening experience of picking up a book at a used bookstore and only finding out later that it was the Reader's Digest condensed version. If you've ever read both the abridged and unabridged version of anything, you understand completely what I mean. I cannot pick up an abridged version of anything and feel comfortable enjoying it; knowing that some other editor's sloppy hands has chopped the story from the version that the original author and editor had carefully assembled makes me feel cheated.

Second, it takes an equivalent or usually longer amount of time to listen to the unabridged version. This is because the average reading speed on an audiobook is usually much slower than the speed of your average reader. For a precise example, my unabridged audiobook of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is 17 hours for 480 pages, which takes 2 minutes 7 seconds on average to read a page. Usually when I read a book it take a minute per page. So by rough estimates, I'll read a book twice as fast as I can listen to it. Therefore, the arguments on saving time or effort to listen to the audiobook are misunderstood at best.

The argument on saving time is due to the perception that you can do other things while you listen to an audiobook, such as cleaning, grocery shopping, or walking. In fact I do listen to audiobooks or podcasts while doing each of these activities. But, the true number of actions that can be performed while listening to a podcast or audiobook are limited; only truly mindless activities are subject to being piggybacked by listening to the spoken word. The human mind is limited to the number of things it can concentrate on at any one time, and listening to something you've never heard before takes up a lot of that concentration. I would even question listening to audiobooks while driving anything but the most monotonous of trips. Your mind knows it too; have you ever turned down the radio when trying to find someplace you've never been before? That is because you know subconsciously that concentration is necessary for locating a new destination. Arguing that audiobooks require significantly less concentration than reading is as ridiculous as arguing that talking on a cellphone while driving is not dangerous.

Factor in the higher cost of an audiobook (usually 50% more than a hardback of the same book, even through iTunes), the longer amount of time spent listening to it, the amount of concentration needed, and the difficulty of finding unabridged versions, and you see that getting an audiobook for the same book is anything but "cheating".

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but it's late and I need some sleep. I'll return to it at some other time. I guess my point is that listening to an audiobook is just another way of experiencing the same book that requires similar effort than reading the book and results in similar, and sometimes increased comprehension, and shouldn't be treated so pejoratively. I have my theories why other book clubs are so against audio, but I'll save those for another post.

1 comment:

Suma said...

Hi, audio books and book clubs are very essential to have a proper knowledge in every aspect of life..Its always better to go for an audio book to get the narration...

suma valluru