James Tate Hill's essay is a fascinating memoir of how he went from sighted, sporadic reader to visually impaired omnivorous reader of audiobooks.
He also examines various facets of the essay's title: do audio books count as reading? Are they instead a performance? Is the physical smell, heft, and tangibility of a book -- beloved by so many sighted writers -- the essential part of the reading experience? We have the same debates about ebooks, he notes.
When I was recovering from a detached retina in the fall and winter of 2003, I was for a couple of weeks unable to watch TV or look at a computer screen comfortably. Reading was out of the question; the page swam in front of me and I experienced vertigo. Audiobooks became my lifeline. I "read" The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Stephen King's On Writing. Many hours of recuperating and resting went by more pleasantly having a good long narrative in my ear, taking my mind away from my troubles. When the reader and the material align, the trance I go into with an audiobook is the same as when I read a physical book.
For myself, I find that non-fiction audio books go down easier than fiction, and I prefer books read by the author, if possible. They know how they want the story to sound. Alan Bennett's diaries simply have to be read by Alan Bennett to be truly savored.
A satisfying audiobook is made or broken by the reader. I tried recently to listen to The Picture of Dorian Gray and simply had to stop after Chapter 4. Part of it was that this philosophical, talky novel became a closed, airless world I simply did not want to live in anymore. Another was that the reader would read something like, " 'Stop,' he cried," so languidly that I got irritated. The text is telling you how to read it, man! Put some life into it!
I'm trying another novel now: Edward Herrmann reading John Updike's Villages. Herrmann does an excellent job as the omniscient narrator or in close-third person, and manages Updike's stylistic flourishes beautifully. But I have trouble discerning vocal differences between his characters when in conversation. Odd, given Herrmann's skill as an actor.
Despite my occasional ups and downs with audiobooks (and with "real" books; not every papery book is a masterpiece for the ages), I will not give them up. I think we live in a wonderful time when there are so many options for people to take in the stories they need.
For further reading: Hill mentions a book that smells a bit like a Ph.D. dissertation dressed up for the mainstream: The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery tells the story of audio-recorded literature, including its social impacts and controversies. Available from Amazon and, as one would hope, Audible.