Audiobooks, Pros and Cons

Ideas and Issues Media

            Pearl River     Several years ago, my dear daughter touted the immense value of podcasts to me saying, “they’ll change your life.”  For whatever reason, they haven’t, and mainly that’s probably more a technical issue than a content complaint.  More recently, somewhat less expansively, she recommended audiobooks which I have come to sample more appreciatively, although with some reservations.  Driving here and there, I spend significant blocks of time on the road.  As a radiophile, too bad that’s not a word, I’ve spent a lifetime working the dials, but as preaching and the rightwing have sucked up more of the airwaves, it’s a struggle, so there’s a certain pleasure it picking a book and listening to the author – or someone – plow through the pages with you as the landscape passes through your windshield.

Technically, audiobooks are a breeze.  Audible is owned by Amazon, which is too bad, but not surprising, since before they became the “everything store”, books were what they were about.  That’s a monthly deal of course as part of their business model, but the selection isn’t bad.   The New Orleans library system has one called Libby, that’s not unique to them, I’m sure, although they say the parish next door has another one.  This one is free if you have a library card.  It’s a little clunkier.  If you don’t check it often, books you might have put on hold, come and go without you having a clue.  You also might have one auto-returned without notice as well, but, hey, it’s free.  The selection is less easy to curate and more tilted towards popular demand, so a lot of best sellers, which isn’t my cup of tea.  In both cases, the narrower selection is a downer, and, capitalism being what it is, that probably won’t change unless audiobooks become increasingly popular.

Couple driving with listening, and another drawback, especially compared to a book with paper or, brace yourself, a Kindle, is that it is harder to highlight a passage or make notes.  I say harder, but driving, it’s impossible, even though if you look at the apps, especially on Audible, it seems to offer a way to underline, so to speak.  The memory being what it is, that’s a frustration, but, truthfully, how often do any of us really go back and read what we’ve noted.  I partly love Kindle because you retain and share all of your notes easily and they are searchable on your computer, which is the bomb.  The other mixed blessing is that listening takes a lot longer than reading, so when you pick out a volume, you’re making a significant time investment.  That’s offset by the driving time, which balances it out, I guess, but I can’t imagine the value of audiobooks without driving.

You’re wondering about the pros, right, since I’ve mainly been on the downside.  I’ve listened to every one of Robert Caro’s LBJ four volumes now, which I wasn’t willing to do in book form, but worked for me via earbuds and endless miles.  The books were excellent, but, lordy, I had not realized how repetitive Caro could be.  Braiding Sweetgrass worked on the road, as did How the Word is Passed, both of which I would have read, but listening to the author’s added something that was both lyrical and powerful.  I might not have read Questlove’s Music is History, but listening to it was a pleasure, and even without being able to underline, his through line in the book was impossible to miss and sticks with me.  I’m over Michael Pollan, although I’ve read a number of his books, and would never have read This Is Your Mind on Plants, his druggie book, but, listening, found it informative.  Mushrooms at the End of the World, I picked for lack of any better choices, and actually found it fascinating.  Anna Tsing mixed a critique of capitalism and the supply chain with deep environmental and ecological multi-country understanding of the Matsutake mushroom trade.  Her critique of the wall built between “concept” and “story” is one that will inform my thinking in the future.  How often can that be said about anything we read?

None of this is what I would term a full-throated endorsement of audiobooks, but more of a “so far, so good” or sort of “an interesting experience” more positive than negative, so take this as you may.  My daughter would probably say that it’s changing my life.  Maybe so?