Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Annals of Technology: The Pros And Cons Of Going Audible

Many years ago, when I was commuting between Zenith and New York, I tried what were then called "books on tape." At that point in time, every car had a "tape deck," a now defunct technology that was, from time to time, carved out of the dashboard of one's car by enterprising youths on the Lower East Side. Books on tape would arrive in the mail, much as Netflix do today, but in a large padded envelope. Contained within would be a large plastic folio with multiple cassette tapes in numbered order (usually 8-12.)

Listening to books was, and is, a project about which I am conflicted. For reasons I don't quite understand, I dislike being read to, and prefer to have text be a starting point for inserting myself in another narrative world (is this why the young enjoy video games?) On the other hand, when I first tried listening to books in the 1990s, I had a highly literary and elderly friend who was losing her eyesight and, sadly, her capacity to read. Books were something we shared, part of the glue of our friendship. In addition to spending my commuting time in the car in a more elevated way, listening to these books allowed me to prolong an intellectual relationship that might otherwise have become restricted by her disability.

I am now nearly twenty years older: my elderly friend passed on about a decade ago, I no longer commute such a long distance (although I drive a minimum of 50 minutes a day, four days a week, on the low side for Nutmeg staters), and I am far closer to a time when I might, myself, be unable to see well enough to read. When I discovered that I could download MP3 files directly to my iPhone, I thought, Why not improve the moment and try again? Listening to books might, after all, be an acquired taste; and I never get to read as much during the term as I like.

So I signed up for, purchased a cord to plug my iPhone into the auxiliary jack in the new Toyota, and I was off.

But what to choose? I decided to go with something in which I was interested, but might not otherwise read: Lady Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (reviewed here by Blake Morrison of The Guardian.) As soon as I began listening, I began to worry that -- well, I didn't like her, and that I would have to stop, something I had not expected. To forge on, I came up with reasons for our differences, which I think had principally to do with her hero worship for Pinter. Fraser is, of course, a biographer, which I kept reminding myself at the frequent points where she subsumed her own story to Pinter's, which is what a biographer would do on principle; she is a popular writer, and he is a Nobel laureate; and she makes a point of distancing herself from feminism at various points in the narrative and naturalizing certain kinds of gender hierarchy. A leftist, Fraser's non- (rather than anti-) feminism becomes particularly clear when she happily marches to the polls to cast her vote for Margaret Thatcher in May, 1979, so pleased is she with the idea that Thatcher will become the first woman PM (yes, Antonia, but that woman?)

But instead of reviewing the book (which is, in the end, as Antonia would say "a lark!"), let me just summarize what I think, at this point, is the difference between listening and reading.

Listening takes longer. While the time might have been compressed had I not confined myself to listening only in the car, by reading it I would have finished a book of this nature in about a day. Listening in the car took me about ten days, which was a long time to live with these people. That said, I grew more rather than less involved with them; I was often eager to get back to the "book;" and I was thus happier in my commute than I have been in years. A prolonged exposure to the ins and outs of Pinter at the height of his success and political activism also made me want to read his plays from beginning to end.

The tone of the prose changes when read, and heard, aloud. Perhaps it was the irritatingly lilting accent of the British actress tasked with Fraser's voice, but turns of phrase and choices of language I might not have noticed as I read grated on me, as did the winsome upswing of tone at the end of sentences and paragraphs. It misrepresented Fraser as a lightweight; differently, the male actor who leaped in from time to time to read Pinter's poetry, was firm, decisive and substantive, snapping out his sentences with a snap and a bang. This made the book very highly gendered, in addition to being almost cartoonishly heterosexual. Hyperbole -- something I have never noticed about Fraser's prose -- stands out in a way I'm not sure it would as one's eyes dash over the page. Women are "raven-haired;" plays are "brilliant successes" or "disasters;" men are "dashing" and "heroic." This can be irritating, as can turns of phrase which forecast the loss of Pinter almost as soon as they meet -- the title, "Must you go?" is one of them.

Listening, the first chapters seem positively mawkish at times, interspersed as they are with stuffy, British-y scenes where the Pinters and the Frasers rearrange their households, a process that is utterly civilized but for actress Vivien Merchant, a binge drinker who did not like being usurped as Pinter's wife and muse by a swanky peeress and acted out in a way that would be perfectly normal in the United States. There is one hilarious chapter where the affair is admitted to all around, and Harold calls formally upon Hugh Fraser (as one might have called upon a father decades ago) for drinks to let him know that he is reliable and serious in his intentions towards Antonia. The two men chat -- not about her, but about cricket -- for hours, and Antonia falls asleep on the couch. When she wakes up Hugh has handed her over to Pinter like the agreeable chap he was, and everyone parts friends. Conveniently, Hugh then dies seven years later, and Antonia can remarry and be a good Catholic too!

The diary format is tedious. The memoir is reconstructed from Fraser's journals, which Pinter read from time to time and annotated with his own memories and observations. Strange but true, although it is a glimpse into how very intimate the couple was. This is also a jarring detail. Because the actress reads everything that is printed, she also reads the dates -- something you might not notice when reading. "October 4. Blah, blah October 26. Blah blah. November 14...." There is this sense of being force-marched through someone's life which is hard to shake, and a compulsion to do the math: "Let's see, Pinter dies on Christmas Eve 2008, so they have approximately 24 years, eight months and six days left to go."

It is easy to miss important points if you lack prior knowledge, or are misinformed, about them. For example, Fraser kept referring to someone named "Poole" to whom she was related, who was clearly a Big Deal, but I couldn't figure out why. I was well into the book before I discovered, because of a reference to one of his major works, Dance to the Music of Time, that she was referring to Anthony Powell, which I have never heard pronounced "Poole." As it turns out, that was something I had gotten wrong from reading, but never really discussing Powell's novels -- which is kind of interesting if you think about it.

You can't take notes. There is a function which allows you to mark passages in the Audible file, but doing this in the car strikes me as hazardous, so I didn't try. This means my constant thought -- "I must do a blog post!" was accompanied by the daily realization that I would have to retrain my memory to remember enough about the book to do so. Will I be able to do this? Will it be good for my aging cerebellum? Only time will tell.

A final note is that buying these Audibles, even with the monthly subscription costs as much or more than buying the book-object. On a certain level this is fine: it's a greener process, for sure, and I am getting to a point where I don't want things in my library that are not of some lasting value to me. However, it does make it difficult to share a book, as the files are not easily transferred to a third-party, and you certainly can't read it together.


Flavia said...

I've become at least a partial audiobook convert (mostly due to being in a long-distance relationship, which means a few multi-hour drives a month), though I agree with many of the downsides you mention. The thing that most irritates me is the inability to flip back if I've forgotten who a character is, or what major plot point he or she was involved in.

But many of the readers are fantastic, and I've found that audiobooks are great for re-reading classics that I otherwise might not have gotten around to for a while (like The Odyssey). And when the writing is spectacular, hearing it aloud is a real gain. Jeremy Irons reading Lolita, is, I'm convinced, even better than reading the book silently to oneself. I immediately started listening to it again upon finishing it, and have lent it to several colleagues since then.

Katrina said...

I also signed up for audible a few months ago, and have been using it to hear older books that I would otherwise not get around to reading (Fitzgerald, Updike, Faulkner).
Regarding the sharing issue, it is possible to authorise more than one computer to your audible account. My partner and I did this so we could both listen to the same book while in different countries (we used to do it the low-tech way, and buy two copies of the same book so we could be our own book group when we were apart).

Elizabeth M. said...

I agree with the downsides of audiobooks. I think the need to be choosy is paramount. I find that stories meant to be listened to do better as audiobooks, hence as Flavia pointed out, lyrically rich classics translate well to audio. I've also taken to downloading podcasts and then picking and choosing carefully what I want to listen to in the car. Radiolab and This American Life are my favorites, though again, I'm very picky. I even listen to the JAH podcast as commute fodder, an otherwise ignored "other thing to do" that would never be enjoyed without occasional commuting.

GlassPen said...

what's old is new again? stories used to only be accessible to people who memorized, or were within hearing distance of someone who had memorized, the whole thing. much consternation and gnashing of teeth about the decline of civilizaiton that the printed version would bring about. now memory retention seems to be increasingly confined to the margins, suitable for weird contests.
one audible book I particularly enjoyed was Derek Jacobi reading Le Morte d'Arthur...rather more accessible than print, at least for me.

tanya said...

I used to listen to audiobooks during my commute before grad school, but then gave it up (I think because I wasn't going to campus every day my first year or so, whereas I would go to my other job every day). Still, if I'm going on a long trip, I'll get an audiobook. For instance, a year ago, I got _The Help_, which was absolutely fabulous as a read-aloud (I subsequently bought the hard cover edition, which I still haven't read - a friend had to tell me that the dialects are apparently written in, which she thought made the reading experience more difficult for her). That year, I also did _Time Traveler's Wife_, a book I really love but hadn't gotten to reread in awhile.

Supposedly my iPad has a function where it can read (some) books aloud - I think mostly ones from the iBook store. I'll have to try it out one of these days.

Anonymous said...

I can't recommend P. G. Wodehouse enough as an author of recorded books. Also I adored Barchester Towers. When I get them on CD from the library, I always get a bunch because I may hate listening to the prose style, or the reader. One thing I also came to realize is that I can't listen to badly written books even though I can read them. You are absolutely right that you can't avoid hearing every freaking word, so if there are lots of cliches, it can be maddening.

Ahistoricality said...

I really hate having to concentrate on something other than driving: listening to news or music, where there's no penalty for shifting attention away briefly, makes sense to me, whereas audio books that I'm actually interested in (my spouse reads to our child in the car, but that doesn't require my full attention at all) strike me as mildly hazardous, at least to my successful navigation!

Kate F. said...

As to the last point--my mom, my sister and I all share an Audible account. We each pick a few books, and make sure to check with each other as our credits expire (does anyone mind I spend a few on children's novels for my kid? does anyone care if I get a brainless mystery? etc.). Five computers can be authorized on one account, so we can each download all of books and read "together."

Amy said...

I think who is doing the reading actually has a tremendous effect on the experience. My husband and I are currently listening to Bill Bryson read his Notes from a Small Island and I don't like his voice. I read the book a long time ago and thought it was very funny but listening I find him boring. On the other hand listening to Arlo Guthrie read his father, Woody's, Bound for Glory was fantastic and I think probably better than reading it myself.

Bardiac said...

I use books on tape or cd from the library, and love them for certain things. I know I can't use them for anything I need to know or teach, or for anything too intense. But they're a great way to get a sense of something new, or a historical background. I tend to listen to non-fiction and novels that are way out of my field, since I don't tend to have time/energy to physically read those things much. You can also get download audios of lectures (I've use the UC Berkeley site for classical history).

StinkyLulu said...

I really love audiobooks. When I had a longer commute (through a mountain pass that stole all radio but the rightwing talk station), books on cd were essential to my mental health. And now that I finally have an ipod (and a regular gym routine), I've enjoyed an subscription for about six months.

I'm also a performance historian, so I tend to approach the audiobook as an extension in the 19th century tradition of elocution and oral interpretation. Which reminds me, in effect, that I am listening to an interpretation of the text -- not an unmediated delivery of it.

To that end, I find the reader as important in my audiobook choice as I do the text being read.

I do tend to prefer it when the author records their own book. Neil Gaiman is great at reading his own stuff. And I probably loved Mary Carr's LIT and Jeannette Walls's GLASS CASTLE even more because I got to tune into their literary voice AND their audible voice. Sometimes the reader can truly elevate the material (see Lorraine Toussaint's reading of Walter Mosley's FORTUNATE SON for a powerful example of this) and I'm told that Jim Dale's readings of Harry Potter make the series actually come to life. (And I have abandoned many a book because the reader was just not to my taste -- hence, the necessity of the audio sampling on or itunes.)

All of which is to say, the audiobook is definitely a different way of engaging the text, with different pleasures and different challenges.

Anonymous said...

One hates to be pedantic, but Antonia Fraser isn't a peeress. She's a daughter of an Earl, and therefore entitles to the prefix "Lady", but not a holder of a peerage in her own right.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I cannot bear to listen to someone read aloud. It is physically painful to me. When PhysioWife reads me a few sentences out of a newspaper article or whatthefuckever, it takes all of my self-control to listen politely and respectfully, because my intrinsic reaction is as if she were bashing me repeatedly over the head with a shillelagh.

I have no idea why this is the case.

joe said...

I start many more audiobooks than I finish ... or even than I get through the first disc. (I listen to books on CD in the car.) A great book can be ruined by a poor reading. There are some good ones, though. IMHO, the best audiobook performance is Kristofer Tabori's reading of Middlesex (by Jeffrey Eugenides).

Bardiac said...

Speaking of best books: Salman Rushdie reading his *Haround and the Sea of Stories* is absolutely amazing and wonderful.

Sophie, Kris, and Gracie said...

I commuted for 6 years and found audio books a huge comfort considering the terrible content on the radio during the hours I was driving. I haven't done because I have the fortune of a library that does MP3 audiobook downloads with a public library card. It is free and the waits are short and it is compatible will all sorts of MP3 players. I don't want to keep most copies of books I read, because they are what I call "low calorie" reading. They are popular series that don't have a whole lot of content or value but are fun to read. Try your public library- or even google free audiobooks. Many of the classics have been put to audio and are free of charge to download. Just a though!

Anonymous said...

Librivox was recommended by my school librarian.

Liz in Ypsilanti said...

In the summer of 2009, my husband and I drove to North Carolina from Michigan listening to "The Audacity of Hope" read by the author. Siiiigh! I was even more in love by the end of that book than I'd been before, and even Hubby was dreamily saying, "Wouldn't it be great to take a class with him?"

On this summer's road trip, we listened to Robert W. Merry's "A Country of Vast Design" about the presidency of James K. Polk. This is not a book I would have read, but the twists and turns and complicated politics held up well over several days of long drives. It was a comfort, somehow, in the wilds of Upper Peninsula woods to be transported back to the 1840s.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this unusually explicit and thoughtful description of the differences between reading and listening to books. One problem with the blog is that you seem to blur listening to Antonia Fraser's book with listening to books in general. (She's an awful snob.)

This is just on the experience of listening to books from a personal "rescued" standpoint. I discovered Books-on-tape through this Internet -- from a listserv. I didn't know the firm existed nor that I could get wonderful novels read aloud, and it has made a terrific difference for me since I have to drive most places. Even to buy a cartoon of milk I must get in my car. When my daughters were young I went the route of taking them to dancing and other classes: driving there and back, sometimes having to wait outside. What an insane waste of my time -- but for books-on-tape.

I don't care for the recordings of dramatizations of the books. They seem to me at times grotesque sentimentalizations of the books. What I'm referring to is strict reading aloud of the text the author wrote. I can sometimes accept an abridgment if it's not too savage -- like a two cassette version of George Eliot's Middlemarch when the unabridged version is two boxes of 10 cassettes each.

The problem with CDs is one can't rewind. One can go back to the previous niched spot, but that often means rehearing a great deal, and my car jumps and lurches at times over holes and bumps in the road so the CD stops playing and I have to make the thing come out and then put it back and click to the nearest nick. I never had to do that with the tapes.

It was a terrible loss to me when my tape deck in my car broke. My husband tried to find and make a way to convert my tapes to CDs but could not. I wrote a lament on one of my blogs:


Tenured Radical said...


This is why the MP3 player is essential, I think: mine plugs into the car's sound system, but it's a very new car. You can go back and forth, and mark passages if you want. The Antonia Fraser didn't skip at all (she *is* a snob, and a hagiographer to boot, which explains a lot), although the current one -- Hardy's Jude the Obscure -- does get stuck momentarily from time to time, and I'm not sure why. I'm with you on the dramatizations -- having an adult male "act" children's and women's voices is a little icky.

Kateri said...

We should also mention that for us academics who never have a spare minute to read anything but what we need for teaching and research that Audible is a way of keeping up on fiction. I subscribed a year ago and am thrilled to have fiction back in my life. It isn't a choice between Audible and books, it's a choice between fiction at all and no fiction.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I listen to audiobooks only while driving long distances. My wife and I got through the first third of Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star this weekend while going to and from Buffalo on some family business. We prefer travelogues because they're usually forgiving if you get distracted by traffic or something else, unlike many novels. We once tried to listen to Ten Days that Shook the World but, at least in audible form, Reed's book required flipping back and forth, which the format didn't allow.

John Mortimer's Rumpole stories are also good, since they're short.