Thursday, September 8, 2011

Audiobooks in the Afternoon

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For the past week or so, I’ve been reading "The Hunger Games" series by Suzanne Collins, quite voraciously. (Expect more HG-related posts to come.) Well, technically, I've been listening. I didn't search for the audiobooks in particular, but when I couldn’t find print copies in any library in town (okay, I tried two!) I turned to the library system's digital media collection.

The first book, The Hunger Games, is 374 pages long but required 11 hours and 11 minutes worth of recording. It was my first audiobook ever, so the sheer amount of time that it took surprised me. Reading the actual book probably would have taken me half the time, maybe a third. (I’m a bad estimator.)

The biggest advantage to audiobooks is obviously the convenience because it allows for multitasking, so long as that other task is mindless. I spent most of my 11 hours doing data entry for work, and the audiobook actually made that time enjoyable. My only troubles occurred when I went to check my email or skim articles- often, I’d realize that I was paying no attention to the words being fed to my ears and had to rewind a bit to take it all in again. Other than that, I can’t say that listening hampered my comprehension.

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Still, concentration is another matter. When you’re reading a book that is particularly engrossing (as books should be), it’s easy to tune out the rest of the world. But with audiobooks, it’s unlikely that you’re going to shut off your other streams of perception and close your eyes as you listen. That defeats its inherent functionality. And as any student of psychology knows, vision tends to overpower hearing in a normal person, so it’s challenging to “get in the zone” while listening to an audiobook.

Perhaps a bigger problem is with interpretation. As a form of oral storytelling, an audiobook requires a speaker, whose narration provides his or her own spin to the story. It’s inevitable and indelible- the pace; the pitch; the gender, age, and ethnicity of the speaker- all shape the listening experience. The narrator is arguably as much an architect of the story as the author. This can be a double-edged sword: a personal reading experience becomes a shared experience, or maybe an impersonal one. This is most apparent with poetry- the words on the page may be understood differently simply by its vocalization.

So, as you might have guessed, there are definite pros and cons to listening to audiobooks, but the aural experience is drastically different to that of the visual... in fact, it’s a whole different kind of storytelling.

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