Like a lot of other “bookish” people before me, my first reaction to somebody suggesting I listen to an audiobook instead of sticking with my conservative, age-old routine of just going page-by-page, line-by-line was complete, fresh, and undiluted denial. I do not know why academics — specifically literary academics — tend to automatically shun the idea of audiobooks. I have heard all the general explanations, of course: “It’s not really reading,” “Physical copies are sacred,” and “How dare you even begin to suggest that my ears do the work my eyes would have otherwise done in the first place? Have you gone mad?” Many evoke pragmatic entreaties, or cite an intrinsic “bookish” universality which holds the physical copy as the default, infallible platform from which stories, information, and biographies should be consumed. Only a true reader subscribes and remains loyal to this literary divinity, which an audiobook would effectively desecrate.
A twelve-year-old me — who was a thespian at heart, really — also believed all of this to be true. She would dramatically shriek at any sort of advertisement from Audible or GoogleBooks that told her to download the next murder mystery or one-act play recited by Benedict Cumberbatch or whichever famous person signed their voice away for profit like the princess in The Little Mermaid, feeling a wave of unfounded insult before she pompously ignored these commercials and thought she was somehow better for — quite literally — sticking to the script: Not getting caught up with the surge of technological advancements the grown-ups (whom she so desperately wanted to impress) shook their heads at the other twelve-year-olds for. She believed herself to be a true reader: one who remained faithful to centuries of tradition and performed dutiful worship to the printed paper. She never really questioned why she felt this way, nor did she ever think herself to be wrong or in desperate need to shut up and maybe give listening to audiobooks a chance before she beat them viciously with the religious fervor of a disciple tasked with punishing an unforgivable act of heresy. (Like I said, she was very dramatic).
I sustained this illusion of readership supremacy until my first year of university. When I graduated, my favorite high school English teacher had given me a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a farewell gift. Austen, though I may elicit many shocks when I say this, was not at the top of my To Read list back then. She was tea parties and fancy weddings, whereas I preferred to read about corpses and gray moralities. And I wish I could go on to say that, after setting my own pride and prejudices aside, I picked up this famous novel and soon found myself swept up in the romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Irrevocably engrossed by the whims of Netherfield and Pemberley. Wholly and newly dedicated to everything Austen wrote — from Emma to her grocery lists — henceforth.
Well, I did not. (Please hold your horrified gasps until the end).
The book bored me, and I do not exaggerate, to actual tears. I remember sitting in my apartment bedroom, sobbing in frustration over how my roommate studying Pharmacy loved this book more than I could even pretend to. I was never really one for love stories to begin with, and to slowly realize that I had already dug myself 100 pages deep into a world of dreary balls and rejected proposals from which I stubbornly refused to let go of was anything less than splendid. (I was an English major: I had to read Pride and Prejudice or else I was a disgrace!) So I gave up. In a moment of supposed weakness, I searched for an audiobook.
It did not take too long to find, nor did it cost me any money like I feared. By this point, as I have said, I had read past 100 pages of the novel, and when I have gotten that far in a story, my stubbornness always compels me to finish it — by any means necessary. Pressing play on that audio file felt like a moment of pathetic weakness. At first, I kept my physical copy open in front of me, on my lap, as I listened to the audiobook, thinking to myself that at least I was still respecting Pride and Prejudice’s original, true form while also kicking myself for succumbing to its more digital, modern, and abhorrent counterpart.
That arrangement did not last long, as the woman who read the audiobook out loud to me had a dizzying voice that made me want to fall asleep more than Austen’s writing did. Trying to focus on both the printed words and aligning them to her talking was very difficult, but I still did not want to do the actual reading by my lonesome. So, after about twenty pages of my eyes and ears straining to both visually gather and audibly hear the story, I set my copy down, lay back on my bed, and just listened to the audiobook by itself. I fell asleep soon afterwards.
I followed this pattern with Pride and Prejudice until I reached the ending and could finally declare myself a true literary scholar for having read one of the timeless and most beloved classics in English history. I did the same routine with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: read as much as my eyes could bear, find the audiobook, listen until I slept, wake up, remember the last thing I could discern from before I fell asleep, repeat.
Even if I had already done it thrice now, each time felt like cheating. Recalling how my younger self would regard audiobooks as some phonic manifestation of religious sacrilege, at the very least it still felt “wrong.” However, the thing about cheating is that it makes life easier, at least for a little while, until you get caught. But nobody was going to “catch” me listening to an audiobook and start chastising, so any consequences or reprimand for my actions could only come from within my own ridiculously constructed values.
My first experience with listening to an audiobook can best be described as “supportive.” Whenever somebody else’s voice did the reading for me and audibly said Alex’s irritating Nadsat or vocally explained how the dry character of Roxanne Coss magically managed to make every man fall in love with her through opera, I felt relief. As if the debilitating responsibility of scanning the words on a page while simultaneously understanding everything I had read in perfect English was lifted from me. I had help. A companion. Someone to do the labor for me. Because of this assistance, I finished those three stories that would have otherwise taken me far longer to get through with their dull prose and shoddy plotlines. I can say I know Austen, Patchett, and Burgess, and the people who also know them — whether through exclusively reading their printed text, listening to their audiobooks, or both! — can pipe in for a discussion. The way we took in the stories may differ, but that can be said for any reading experience, not just because an audiobook is introduced to the mix.
Despite this revelation, I still do not primarily consume books via audio. It is more because of habit than impertinence, though. Since my first year at university, I have long since relinquished the idea that audiobooks are monstrous deviants of the written text, and that people who use them are not “really” reading. Such concepts are, as I have learned, very relative, and were invented for no real purpose other than to falsely segregate the “real” readers from the fake ones: a divide that fundamentally necessitates ambiguous definitions in and of themselves. Really, there are no such things as either. My pride and my prejudice have been rightfully thwarted.