The ability to listen to and enjoy audiobooks doesn’t have to come naturally to everyone– it certainly didn’t to me.
But over the past few years, I (like so many readers) have fallen in love with them.
This is the first of a three-part series on audiobooks. This week, we’ll talk about what has recently changed in audiobook trends and why, even if you weren’t excited about them five or ten years ago, it might be time to give them another go.
In future posts, I’ll give my own tips for easing yourself into audiobooks and offer up some recommendations for audiobooks you can get started on!
They’re Not Just For Road Trips Anymore
When I was growing up in South Jersey, I only knew one person who listened to audiobooks regularly: my best friend’s mom. She was a high-powered executive who woke up at 5:30, went for a run in her quiet suburban neighborhood, and headed into the city for her 11-hour workday all before we stuck our teenaged toes out from beneath the warm blankets. I spent many nights there, especially during the summer, and I can remember drowsily listening to the smooth voices drifting out from the kitchen in the morning– sometimes it was NPR (in which case I inevitably fell right back asleep), but sometimes it was describing a car chase, or a heart-rending departure, or a quick-witted escape.
I always figured that she listened to audiobooks because she just didn’t have the time to sit down and read “the real thing.” While that may have been the case for her (she really was that busy), that isn’t the only reason to listen to audiobooks– as many readers have discovered. Audiobooks used to be relegated to the road trip or extended commute, but with the changing technology, they’re getting a makeover.
This Is The Part Where I Nerd Out On Statistics
My friend’s mom was the only person I knew who listened to audiobooks when I was a kid, but a decade later, she’s got a lot of good company. Edison Research (a market research firm) found that in 2016 43% of Americans over 12 have listened to at least one audiobook and that people who use audiobooks listen to an average of 6.7 per year (both of these numbers are up from all previous years).
Audiobooks are the fastest-growing portion of the publishing market, perhaps due in part to “digital fatigue”:
And even though most people do listen to audiobooks on their phones, an audiobook doesn’t require you to look at your screen in order to enjoy it. That’s a huge benefit for those of us (myself included) who are getting sick of the smartphone’s siren song.
Audiobooks are a universally appealing trend. The percentage of Americans ages 18-29 who listen to audiobooks is almost identical to the percentage of 30-64 year olds who do. It’s likely that there are significant differences in the types of audiobooks each group listens to, but the medium itself has found its place in many different lifestyles.
All this is to say, audiobook listening isn’t for everyone, but it seems like a lot of people are finding ways to incorporate it into their lives.
So What’s Changed?
First of all: the technology.
Audiobooks used to be (and still are) insanely expensive. There are good reasons for that (you’re paying for the book and for someone to spend dozens of hours reading it to you), but library apps like Overdrive and Hoopla have great selections for free. They also make it easy to sample the audio (an important feature, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to suffer through a book with a narrator who sounds like your high school math teacher please slow down how can numbers be imaginary WHOA sorry flashback) and download it to start listening right away. No walk to the library, cumbersome CD set, or risk of late returns. For adorable potatoes like myself, this is an actual game-changer.
I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to lump this general trend toward audio formats in with the American obsession with productivity. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook website) seems to agree: they posted an article last month on speed-listening (increasing the playback rate by anywhere from 1.25 to 2.5 times the normal speed). The listeners they interviewed felt that increased speed both helped them pay closer attention (I’d love to see a study on the accuracy of that, by the way) and consume more media overall.
At the farthest, most (dare I say) insane end of that spectrum, we have the designer of the Rightspeed app, which allows listeners to increase their playback speed by up to more than 5x. “The dream,” he says, “was to crunch through a 5 hour audiobook in 20-30 minutes without completely destroying my comprehension.” Obviously, this guy is an extreme case, but I understand his desire. We’re constantly inundated with media, from the infinite scroll of Instagram and Twitter to the 24-hour news cycle to the proliferation of blog posts, podcasts, new book releases, and listicles. With so much interesting material to consume, there is an obvious allure to multitasking, which audiobooks (at least in theory) allow– maybe even encourage. I can’t imagine simply sitting and listening to an audiobook. I think I’d just… fall asleep. The medium seems designed to promote multitasking. Take the Audible ad campaign:
The company expects you to do something else while you listen. The book becomes a soundtrack to your life.
If this inherent multitasking doesn’t sound appealing to you, and you think reading is something sacred, like meditation, that should be done with full intentionality and focus, then audiobooks probably won’t give you a ton of joy. I totally respect that perspective, but I also think that audiobooks have helped me become more productive: yesterday, I did a deep clean of our apartment so we could show it to prospective renters. It took about 4 hours, which would normally have made me feel like the day was a complete intellectual waste. But when, after the last floorboard had been scrubbed, I reached into my pocket and turned off Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, I felt amazing. I’d done what I needed to do and what I wanted to do. It was the best of both worlds.
So, if you aren’t categorically opposed to audiobooks but have either 1. tried them before and been unable to make them “stick,” or 2. never quite known how to start, I’ve got some tips and recommendations for you in upcoming posts!