A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.
Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.
This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.
What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.
The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.
I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).
It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.
I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).
The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.
Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.