April 27th, 2018

book talk // audiobooks.

Let’s talk audiobooks.

For years, I assumed that audiobooks were “cheating.” I suppose I was mostly thinking in terms of the page count, or my Goodreads challenge — I wouldn’t count a podcast in my overall book count, but I also wouldn’t count an article in the New Yorker or a single short story collected in an anthology. I will also wholly admit that my English professors would never have encouraged me to “listen” to Madame Bovary, so perhaps it was also a bit of lit major snobbery. On the other hand, I use audiobooks to engage my students all the time, so why am I resistant to listening myself?

This year, I have a three hour (total) commute every day. I don’t drive, I take public transit, and that’s a lot of time for me to just be sitting with myself and trying not to listen to other people’s conversations. I decided to join Audible and use my 1 credit a month to download a tome of massive proportions — something 24 hours in length, preferably — and I narrowed my focus to nonfiction. I want to spend those three hours learning!

But, the niggling question remained: is it cheating?

According to the “simple view” of reading, there are two basic processes happening when you’re engaged in the task: 1) decoding, or translating strings of letters into words that mean something and 2) comprehension. University of Virginia psychologist, Daniel Willingham, explains “simple view” and further asserts in his blog post that ”according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.” So, if the point of listening to an audiobook is indeed to practice decoding, then yes, it’s cheating because the decoding has been done for you. However, if you identify as an adult, typical reader, and are reading in your native language, that is probably not the point and you are simply listening to enjoy the story. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what method (print or audio) you used to obtain said enjoyment, the differences are negligible.

Furthermore, hearing a book read aloud can enhance understanding through prosody, or intonation, tone, stress, rhythm, etc. A speaker can evoke an emotional state, enhance comprehension of sarcasm / irony, or choose where to place emphasis — these are things a reader might miss while reading text. Consider stand-up comedy — would it be funnier to hear or read the jokes? Not to mention listening helps with the correct pronunciation of difficult words (part of why I use them in teaching), something I’ve especially appreciated in the audiobooks I’ve chosen as most have had some selections written in a foreign language.

The audiobooks I’ve listened to, and their accompanying reviews, are as follows:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie was my first audiobook, and I listened to this book in hour long chunks during my workday commute. That said, I thought the author did a great job of reminding the reader (listener) where we were picking up in the historical timeline. Parts of this book were very interesting to me — Catherine’s childhood, her marriage to Peter, her ascension to the throne. Parts I found incredibly dull — the wars, the cataloging of her numerous “favorites” (see also: boring, but beautiful and younger men she was sleeping with), and the very detailed account of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution and ensuing moralistic argument about the guillotine and capital punishment was a fairly glaring digression. Also, I thought the author spent a LOT of time discussing who Catherine slept with and I wonder if the same attention would have been paid a male monarch — most of whom had far more lovers than Catherine did. The narration was okay, but not particularly riveting. I dozed off once or twice.

Rating: 3/5

As with Catherine the Great, I listened to Marie Antoinette: The Journey during my commute. I will say Antonia Fraser definitely casts a forgiving and benevolent light on Marie Antoinette while making, what could be rather dry material, quite readable — er, listenable. It’s dense, not textbook dense, but there’s a lot of information.

I really enjoyed the depictions of Marie Antoinette’s happier days, but I appreciated that Fraser extrapolated on what happened after the Revolution, even up to modern times. The queen’s life was tragic — not just her end, but the lack of love (both emotional and physical) and trust in her relationship with Louis, the constant mocking slander she dealt with via the press, the poor health she endured for her whole life (most likely due to a gynecological mishap during her first birth), the deaths of three of her four children, her husband, and ultimately her own untimely execution.

The narrator sounded like a kindly British grandma, and she was quite soothing to listen to after a long day. Some Audible reviewers have said she possesses a halting, grammar-school French pronunciation, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference because I know even less French than she.

Rating: 3/5

Cooney begins her biography of Hatshepsuit with a framing question — why are we so willing to forgive male leaders their excesses but unable to appreciate honest, naked female ambition?

“Hatshepsut had the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right.”

Hatshepsut was, by all accounts, a female king (yes, king!) who did everything right — she was so conventional as to almost be boring. She believed in the divinity of the gods, commanded military campaigns, and oversaw immense archaeological undertakings. She sacrificed her sexuality, even depicting herself without breasts and (as far as we know) never taking a lover, in order to be the divine pharaoh for her people. Her one mistake, the mistake that would erase her from the obelisks and cause mass desecration of her images, assuming the throne that “rightfully” belonged to a male heir. Her successor later demolished much of her funerary temple and her mummy was eventually lost to the desert sand. Cooney actually hypothesizes that this was a political rather than vengeful move, but who knows.

“Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.”

The only downside to this book is that there is a lot of “perhaps” and “would / could have” — there just isn’t much known of Hatshepsut and thus a biography lends itself to a certain level of conjecture based on what is known about Egyptian culture at the time. Without a diary or correspondence, we can’t know what she was thinking or how she felt, so the picture is more of a ruler than that of a woman.

I’ve been waiting for an audiobook to really impress me and this was definitely it. It was narrated by the author, whose voice I happened to really enjoy, and you could tell she was pronouncing everything correctly and putting emphasis where she deemed necessary. Gamechanger! Prosody!

Rating: 4/5

  • I haven’t jumped into the audioboook world yet, but I do love a good podcast. I feel like I have so many of those saved up that if I’m going to be listening to something, it should be one of them, but I am curious as to the way an audiobook might present a story to be differently just by hearing it.

    • If you love podcasts, audiobooks will probably blow your mind. I would have never listened to them if I didn’t have a 3 hour commute, but I am glad I gave it a go.