Reading Without Pages
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Last week, I got through Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” As the adventures of Anna and Vronsky unfolded, I ran with my dog along the bridle path in Central Park, painted my fingernails, shopped for groceries, made dinner, paid bills, walked to the subway, and rode it. I’m neither a speed-reader nor an expert multitasker – just an audiobook aficionado.
For years, I shunned recorded books. It seemed improper to bypass the tactile: breaking in bindings, highlighting passages, scribbling margin notes. Then last fall, after coming down with the flu while in Paris, I downloaded onto my iPod Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty.” Two bedridden days and 19 listening hours later, while I still hadn’t seen the Russian art exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay, I had finished my first audiobook – and immediately purchased another.
If audiobooks allow me to consume great literature while running errands or sitting around too sick to read, then why do I feel so guilty about my iPod filled with “books”? The fact is: It feels like cheating.
But in this case, cheaters do prosper – and we’re not alone. Audible.com, an online retailer of digital audiobook files, serves about 280,000 listeners. Last year was its third straight year of revenue growth, according to a company spokesman, David Joseph.
Among the 12,000 downloadable titles are Homer’s “The Odyssey,” William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” The offerings are not all high art. Plenty of “chick lit”: is available, too. Audible, which is the official audiobook purveyor for Apple iTunes, also sells self-help books and almost 40 study guides by SparkNotes, a CliffsNotes competitor. (High school students, take note: If you can’t be bothered to read “Beowulf” or even the SparkNotes – you can simply download a plot summary.)
A reading specialist, Matthew Lundquist, who provides in-home tutoring services assured me that there is a very simple and acceptable upside to audiobooks: They make ideas and stories accessible to busy people. “If they allow people to explore literature, learn science, or study American history, I think they’re terrific,” he said.
Mr. Lundquist chalked up audiobook ambivalence to snobbery. “There’s still a resistance on an abstract, moral ground,” he said. “It’s elitism. There’s a sense that only people with a certain level of education should have access to some literature, or that you should only read ‘Jane Eyre’ if you have time do it leisurely on a beach in the Hamptons.”
Still, he insisted that audiobooks are no replacement for teaching children to decode words, or to enjoy books in the old-fashioned way. That some people forgo texts in favor of audiobooks is a side effect – not a cause – of poor literacy skills, according to Mr. Lundquist. “People who have the skills still enjoy reading,” he said.
An associate professor of literacy education at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, Cynthia McCallister, agrees that its not a zero sum game. “I’m hooked on National Public Radio,” she said. “I get my news that way, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read the newspaper. They can work in tandem.”
Ms. McCallister predicted that the opposition to audio learning will subside as the iPod generation comes of age. “Sensibilities change over time,” she said.
Audible is helping that transition along by working with Boston Test Prep to create an SAT preparation podcast and collaborating with Pearson Higher Education to develop 100 college-level study guides, the first of which is scheduled for release this fall, Mr. Joseph said. “Historically, audiobooks were thought of as stodgy – for either an older crowd, or for those who couldn’t read,” he said. “With the advent of the iPod, though, we’re seeing a broader age range adopt them.”
Sven Birkerts, author of “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” said the popularity of audiobooks is emblematic of the “do-10-things-at-once philosophy of life.”
“When more complex works are read aloud, much of the experience is lost because those works require pause and meditation, and listening to things on tape doesn’t take that into account,” Mr. Birkerts, whose book will be reissued next fall, said. “You can’t read Virginia Woolf, and take it all in at the speed of a reading voice.”
But you certainly can try.