In your ears

Lend your ears to this week’s feature for our article section that shines a light on the often disregarded medium of audiobooks.

Audiobooks for the Masses

by James King


This guy knows.

THE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL BENEFITS OF AUDIOBOOKS for the visually impaired or otherwise unable to read are beyond question, and access to fiction, educational texts and other works are rightfully prioritised in the public sector. Over recent years advances in technology have enabled us to download in minutes what used to only be scarcely available on CDs or, going back further, cassette tapes. So while the mass availability of these products is of obvious benefit to some, is the reading world ready to utilise this format merely for entertainment alone?

Audiobooks first sold themselves to me when I started reading Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. As some may know the book is several steps up from the easy-going-afternoon story of ‘The Hobbit’, not only in length but also in language and over-indulgence. I tackled ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ in a few weeks and wrestled some of ‘The Two Towers’ to the ground in several more until I became stuck. I’ve never loathed a character and single chapter in a story as much as I did the fourth chapter of that book, entitled: ‘Treebeard.’ If you haven’t read it imagine editing together every walking-tree scene from the films and looping the final piece for 6-10 hours. Several months later I plucked up the courage to tackle it again, but only because, as fortune had it, I’d found a copy of the complete audio set in my iTunes library. I honestly don’t know where it came from, but it just happened to be there exactly when I needed it. Cut to footage of me with my headphones in and a big grin on my face washing the dishes, skipping to work, talking to my girlfriend and putting together a flat-packed bed, and you can understand why it only took me a couple more weeks to polish off the rest of the books in their entirety.

On the face of it their service is a very expensive one. After all how much is being able to listen Stephen Fry read ‘Harry Potter’ worth?

It was a year or so later that I dabbled in my next reading vacation, instigated when an advert for Audible came through my door. “Free trial with new audiobook service,” it read. At that time I’d just started reading the first book from the series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, so I thought I’d move it along a little with some dishwashing reading. What I came to realise is that the power of reading comes from ones own mind, what the imagination creates and how it perceives the world within the words. There is an intimacy to it that draws the reader into a blend of both the world that has been written and the world self-created, and there is a line of reality within that condition that becomes blurred or even erased when we listen to someone else reading the text in his or her own voice; it suddenly becomes less private, and more of a shared affair. The guy reading ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t know what Arya sounded like to me, nor how I interpreted King Robert’s dialogue. The audiobook was a failure, and a failure because I was already thoroughly enthralled by the paperback copy. Audible was a disappointment.


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife…”

It would be almost two years until I dabbled again, a couple of months ago in fact. I know what you’re already thinking; “this guy is some fantasy-geek who likes dragons and stuff.” And while that’s not true at all the book I chose to listen to (because it was given to me as a gift) was ‘The Hobbit.’ Of course I’d read it when I was younger but I really couldn’t remember what happened after Smaug flew to Laketown, so I gave it a listen. This time however I saved it for when I needed a distraction the most: running. Some people need pumping gym music, some people need some adrenaline-fuelled rock, but I’ve discovered the joys of running to the sound of an old man doing his best (the worst) interpretation of Gollum. I finished it in a week and I was hungry for more, though this time I thought I’d choose something slightly more highbrow, something I could tell everyone I’d “read” but without actually having to read it. So I perused the Audible site and to my horror discovered that a downloaded audiobook costs far more than an aesthetically beautiful print from The Folio Society.

On the face of it their service is a very expensive one. After all how much is being able to listen Stephen Fry read ‘Harry Potter’ worth? Titles were listed as coming in at over £20 each. Part one of ‘Game of Thrones’ for example is £13.99, and that’s just half of the book! But do a little rooting around and you’ll find that Audible’s best offer comes with a subscription. At £7.99 a month you get a book every few weeks, and should you be stuck on a particularly crappy one you can always rollover your credit to the next month.

A look on iTunes tells much the same story with the entire first book of George RR Martin’s series coming in at £22.95, though I did spot ‘Bravo Two Zero’ by Andy McNab coming in at a steal for £14.99, and it’ll cost you only £10.99 to read ‘Becoming Johnny Vegas.’ Bargain.

My dreams were squashed at the first obstacle. I love a good read and I love a good run, so combining the two would have made perfect sense. But it’s not to be.

Despite being readily available the audio book is in competition for “the most convenient reading experience,” not only with the Kindle and kind (Audible is a subsidiary of Amazon funnily enough), the iPad and the real-life actual thing called the BOOK, but it also face a stigma that opposes its cultural acceptance; audiobooks are for those otherwise unable to read or for besuited bankers learning Mandarin on the underground, they are not marketable for the masses. And perhaps they won’t be until they become more affordable.

Certainly I for one would love to embark on a 10-mile run whist listening to Brett Easton Ellis on my iPod. I just don’t earn that Yuppie salary or live that Patrick Bateman lifestyle that can command such expensive tastes (see, I read ‘cool’ stuff too).

Audible and All You Can Books both offer free trials of there services and the chance to download entire books. The Folio Society provides limited edition prints of literary classics bound in beautiful covers.

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