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  • Reading Audio Books
  • William Irwin

I hide my audio book habit because most of my colleagues, and even some of my snobbier students, regard audio books as a sign of an impending dark age of mass illiteracy. Feeling uneasy, I wonder: when The Brothers Karamazov comes up in conversation am I obliged to "confess" that I listened to the unabridged audio book, but did not silently read the massive tome? Is there a difference that makes a difference between listening to an audio book and reading a printed book?


People read less today, partly because reading silently is not social; we crave the company of loved ones at the end of the day, and so prefer to watch television with them. Silent reading does not fit today's multitasking lifestyle; you can listen to music while you drive or jog, but you cannot read a book. Or, then again, perhaps you can, if listening to an audio book is reading after all. Time does not need to be specifically set aside for an audio book the way it does with a conventional book—the lights don't even have to be on. And surprisingly, it is satisfying to listen to a book ten minutes at a time while running errands. Perhaps this is because getting started is as easy as pressing a button. By contrast, few people read printed books in ten minute blocks, presumably because it takes something for most people to warm up to reading. If they are going to read, then they are going to do it for a sustained time—something longer than a ten-minute block. It is easier to "push through" and finish an audio book. I nearly gave up on Catch-22; it's too thick and over the top with satire for my taste. And I surely would have given up on it if I had been reading the book silently. I stuck with [End Page 358] the audio book, however, largely because it was easy to continue; I just pressed play every time I got in my car.

Books on tape have been available for quite some time, but, despite often being abridged, they were too clunky and cumbersome for most people. The availability of books on CD and for MP3 download makes it all much more convenient. Audio books are now the fastest growing segment of the book industry and are likely to become even more common and popular, perhaps some day eclipsing the sale of conventional books, perhaps some day becoming the normal way of "reading" literature. And far from being abridged, some audio books today include extras. For example, the audio version of The Amber Spyglass includes epigrams before each chapter that are not in the print version.


Harold Bloom says, "Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you."1 Before listening to audio books myself I would have agreed with Bloom; but now I suspect he simply has never listened to an audio book. Skeptical of literature on audio, I started my audio experience with nonfiction. Pleasantly surprised with nonfiction, I tried listening to fiction and found the presentation very different. Nonfiction books are simply read, whereas works of fiction are typically performed—characters get distinct voices and the reader really puts on a show. Most audio book performances of literature are much like a one-man play, taking us back to the days of traveling bards and rhapsodes.

In The Performance of Reading Peter Kivy highlights that for most of its history Western literature has been experienced out loud.2 As is well known, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were performed out loud by bards, as Beowulf was centuries later. But less well known is the fact that even after the invention of the printing press, when books were still scarce and expensive, even people in possession of books generally read them out loud to themselves and to others. So it is odd that along with Harold Bloom, my colleagues and students, look with mistrust at...