Modern software tech replacing physical objects seems to be a common trend over the past few years. The replacement of DVDs with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video come to mind. Online shopping instead of the high street. This trend seems to invade every aspect of day-to-day consumption. Whilst this introduction could launch me into a more general debate over which is better and the merits of both. Instead, I am going to discuss an aspect of tech evolution which until this winter seemed to have passed me by. This is the idea of an audiobook. I understand that the general concept of audiobooks has existed for a long period of time. The mention of an audiobook brings back images of growing up listening to a CD of Peter Pan on a long car journey. Further podcasts have long been present in everyday life. Yet the concept of a marketplace to buy, rent, or subscribe to different audiobooks seems to be a more recent concept becoming increasingly more prominent in the 2010s.

Like many students, during the semester I struggle to consistently read for pleasure on top of my university reading. Partly due to the stuff I read for pleasure often being similar to what I study (I fell for the old school teacher cliché of “do what you find interesting at university”). Partly my enjoyment of a YouTube based pre-sleep routine (it starts with watching clips from “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” ends with a lousy sleep). Or perhaps, due to a combination of my YouTube habit kicking in at midday and poor time-management, consequently by nightfall there is more urgent required reading which needs to be done. All three are woefully poor excuses as to why I don’t often read, but it still meant at Christmas I was searching for a solution.

Over the holiday period, during one of my all too frequent “YouTube black holes” I heard an academic say something which inspired me. I can’t remember the clip or the person who said it… I think it was stated somewhere between clips from “Rick Shiels Golf” and “the Graham Norton Show”. Anyway, I shall paraphrase… we are living in a period where aural learning seems to be exceeding reading learning (if anyone knows a more technical term for reading learning, do let me know.) Of course in hindsight, anyone who is speaking on a YouTube video will say you learn more from hearing than reading. Irrespective, the academic had sucked me in.

I explored all the options for audiobooks which existed in the app store. Then in keeping with most purchasing decisions this year, I went for the Amazon option… Audible.  It costs around £8 a month, although you get a one month free trial. It operates a kind of token system where depending on how much you pay for your subscription a month, you receive a certain number of tokens. It seems like quite a good system so long as you listen to that many books in a month. This is because buying an extra audiobook through Audible can get quite steep.

When on the app, it is evident that the audiobook industry is constantly evolving. The days of a sterile narrator giving a monotonous reading of the text seem to be coming to an end. The current trend (based on the “bestsellers” section of the app) is that the authors of the book seem to also narrate it. Or a professional and engaging narrator is employed to do the role. Gone are the days of tired Peter Pan retellings on scratched CDs. Interestingly it seems audio courses are being created and narrations being made which are not based on an original text. For example, I listened to a recording about the history of Russia which had been made solely for audio purposes. What is clear is that, in the world of literature production, audiobooks are no longer an afterthought.

It’s clearly a growing aspect of literature, but it needs to be asked if there are any advantages over reading? I think what I have found is unlike reading, listening to an audiobook is far more passive. Firstly, moments where I would be too tired to read a book, I could listen to an audiobook, as I am not having to activate my eyes and transfer the words into thoughts in my brain (if you couldn’t tell already, I am not a scientist). My flatmate waxes lyrical about just how great listening to podcasts and books are before sleep.  Equally though, from another point of view you can do other things whilst listening to an audiobook. Here are a few examples of things I have done with Matthew McConaughey’s biography (spoiler alert: great book)  playing in my ears: ran, walked, ironed, studied, cooked dinner, and more. All of these things you can not do whilst reading a book. In theory this implies you can be more productive whilst learning new things.

Equally with traditional books there is a real lack of certainty in terms of time commitment. We all speculate about how long it will take us to read, or how many pages you can read before bed. I have always found looking at how much more of the book I have to read as quite daunting. A feature I enjoy about audiobooks is knowing how long the book will take to listen to. This is because you get a specific hour length for each book. Equally it prevents you from making ill thought-out decisions, it veered me well away from the 32 hours it would have taken me to have read War and Peace (I am rather hoping my Russian tutors never read this).

There are clear limitations to audiobooks too. Obviously multitasking limits your ability to actively engage with the reading. “Re-reading pages” is also quite frustrating on audio books. Further there is simply not as many audiobooks as there are real books at present. I think something must be said for the pleasure of physical reading too. There is something very enjoyable and therapeutic and unique about it. Whilst reading audiobooks has been an interesting experience and something I will continue, I have also found myself picking up books again and finding more time to read them. I think ultimately whilst many people are quite partisan about audiobooks and print books, I am currently enjoying doing both. Variety is the spice of life as they say.