I used to avoid talking about audio books. In general if you are 28 years old and in graduate school and you listen to audio books then the worst thing about the whole practice is admitting it to your graduate-school peers. Every time a book comes up in conversation, your dude friends will ask “Did you listen to that on audio book?,” and then they will laugh. Less dude-like people, people less invested in making fun of you, will just cock their heads to the side and ask you why you do it. As if liking books were not enough! As if it weren’t the best thing in the world to have someone read to you! As if you had something better to do! I thought about starting this essay by insisting that I listen to audio books for work, so that I could not be mistaken for that other kind of person, that kind of person who listens audio books because it brings her some kind of unsophisticated pleasure. I am not, I wanted you to know, your Aunt Paula. My kitchen is not decorated with rooster towel racks and rooster potholders and rooster trim. I am a very serious person.
It isn’t just my graduate-school friends. Some authors still disdain audio books, too, although the extra income is hard to turn down. (Audio book sales account for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total book publishing market, and authors stand to make real money from them.) And then for every anti-audio book novelist there are several anti-audio book critics. The essayist Sven Birkerts claims that all good reading involves self-mediation, effort, “collaboration” between the reader and the book, whereas audio books “determine” everything—“pace, timbre, inflection”—for the “captive listener.” The blogger and critic Scott Esposito is less careful to mask his snobbery: “Don’t go pretending like you’re some kind of big-time reader because you consumed the complete works of Balzac via mp3. No, you’re some guy who listened to an iPod while cooking dinner.” And when a New York Times reporter asked Harold Bloom a couple of years ago what he thought of audio books, the great Yale humanist told her that “deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear.” It requires, he continued, the use of “that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” This sounds to me somewhat peculiar, but a lot of people basically agree with it. They believe that whatever part of you is “open to wisdom” is a part that can be activated only through the eyes.
Unless, of course, you are blind. In which case everything is obviously completely totally different.
Blindness had a moment in the twenties and thirties. Because so many soldiers coming home from the First World War had been blinded by chlorine gas and mustard gas, non-congenital blindness suddenly became much more common in the United States. Congress responded to its newly blind constituents by putting aside some money for books in Braille. But Braille is not for everyone; it’s very hard to learn, and in the 1930s only one in four blind adults could read it. In 1935 the Works Project Administration began a project producing a special new phonograph machine called the Talking Book. The project operated out of a converted loft on Manhattan’s Tenth Avenue, and at its height it employed three hundred previously unemployed people. A sign at the head of the room said “Every man working here is doing his part to make the blind of the country happier.” By the first months of 1937, ten thousand blind Americans were listening to WPA audio books.
It would be a long time before your Aunt Paula started listening to The Help in her car. Not until 1948 did new technology (LPs!) enable longer recordings that could be played on regular home phonographs. Even then, though, for several decades—until around the mid-1970s—most people who listened to full-length recorded books were people who did so because disability made it difficult or impossible for them to read books the traditional way.
Then came the 1979 energy crisis. Americans started importing compact cars from Japanese manufacturers, and they came with built-in audio cassette players. In 1983, a prim and assiduous woman named Flo Gibson—who had been a World War II radio actress, and who, in the early 1970s, after her youngest child had left for college, had begun recording books for the Library of Congress talking-book program—started a book-recording company. She began with recordings of her own voice; she worked out of the basement of her family’s Washington, DC home; she specialized in classics, which were in the public domain. Soon she had rivals. Americans were driving around with playback technology next to their steering wheels, and the market was happy to give them ways to use it.
Audio books are good for people driving cars because they are good at occupying part but not all of one’s attention. For me this is also true of regular books: I am a profoundly distractible reader, like a raccoon tasked with doing something tedious in a vast field of shiny objects. But while when I’m trying to read a regular book my focus takes a sort of oscillating form—now I’m reading, now I’m distracted, now I’m reading again—with audio books it’s more like sustained equilibrium. Maybe 60 percent of my attention is going to the Audio book; the other 40 percent is absorbed by something else. The exact balance shifts, but most of the time I am actually doing both things.
This is part of the appeal. Since the 1980s there have been more sighted people than blind people listening to audio books, and most of us have done so because we were also doing something else. Audio books are good for long trips. They are also good for housework, although they can be drowned out by a vacuum. I started listening to audio books because I was reading for my first set of graduate-school qualifying exams. My list of books seemed endless, and I thought that listening to some of them on mp3 might solve the problem of having too little time to read. Or rather, too little time to both read and run. With audio books I could do both at the same time.
The possibility of reading while also doing something else produces one of the stranger phenomenological characteristics of audio book reading: you can have a whole set of unrelated and real (if only partially attended) experiences while simultaneously experiencing a book. You live in two worlds at once. My first audio book was Flo Gibson’s recording of The Mill on the Floss, which, by the way, is one of the very great audio books: the sound is scratchy, but Gibson’s voice is confident and almost conspiratorial, warm and intimate and pleased to be recounting a story she knows you will be glad to have heard. I listened to it running by the Charles River with earbuds in my ears, and three years later I still associate certain spots along the Charles with scenes from the novel’s Dorlcote Mill. I also remember exactly where along the Weeks Footbridge Lucy Deane marveled at how beautiful Maggie Tulliver looks in shabby clothes. I think of it whenever I pass that spot, which means I think of it most days.
Since that first time, I’ve listened to maybe fifteen audio books a year, mostly while running. (I also listen to music. I’m a pretty lazy runner, and sometimes I need something with a beat to motivate me not to take a nap on the ground someplace far from home.) This June I listened to the TV actress Roxana Ortega read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad while I ran very short laps in ninety-degree heat around the Venetian island of Giudecca. The set of elaborate PowerPoint slides that make up one of the most affecting chapters of the novel—each slide set off in the recording by an anachronistic but satisfying projector noise—remediate to surprisingly beautiful effect. In July I tried to listen to Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty until I almost died of boredom and had to switch to something else. This has often happened to me with nonfiction audio books, although the best recordings of the good ones (Noah Feldman’s Scorpions, Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution) are unbelievably satisfying, amounting to long smart stories that both keep you rapt and teach you things you want to know. This August, visiting my dad’s family in New York State, I ran around a lake and listened to Lolita, narrated with perfect menace and longing—“Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!”—by Jeremy Irons.
There are some that are better on paper. I tried A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and had to turn it off and switch to the page when I found that hearing the monologues out loud made me want to strangle this Dave, this poor long-suffering generous self-loathing delusional self-aggrandizing egotistical bombastic Dave, with my bare hands. I bought and downloaded Emma Donoghue’s Room without listening to the online preview, then found that, because it is supposed to be narrated by a child, Hachette Audio had hired either Elmo or Elmo’s voice-double to read it. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding at first was read by a narrator who seems to think—maybe because its characters have names like Henry Skrimshander and Pella Affenlight, or maybe because baseball is always kind of mythic—that he is reading an outrageously fabulous tall tale for baby toddlers. The effect was really, really terrible. I had planned to listen to the novel on a bus down to New York City, but after listening to the first few minutes I downloaded the book to my Kindle and read it that way instead. (I’ve heard they’ve made a new recording, which is extremely happy news; I’m thinking about listening to the new version, which may or may not count as “reading it again.”)
If some books are better on paper, some others are better out loud. Sometimes the relative slowness of listening enhances an effect (Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: twelve hours and twenty minutes of murders are more brutal and mind-numbing than three hundred skimmable pages of same); other times the book is just better to hear than to see. While living in Brooklyn and reading for my second set of qualifying exams, I listened to Alex Haley’s Roots, which I thought I might write about in my dissertation, over a period of months. I also had a copy of the novel in paperback, and about two-thirds of the way in I tried to take a note by referring to the paper version. Reading it on the page was a real disappointment. The prose was awkward, the dialogue stilted. Kunta Kinte seemed like a clumsy device. The whole novel looked suddenly like a kind of heavy-handed concept book—exactly the kind of thing that should have been popular in the fall of 1976 and depreciated quickly since then. I could probably say something plausible here about orality and the African American tradition—drop a little Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan, mention Toni Morrison writing for oral performance, work in “the trope of the talking book.” But what is probably more true is that Avery Brooks is a strangely wonderful voice actor, and that Alex Haley is a very good writer who is not very good at punctuation. Soon after the paperback incident I went back to the Audio book version and listened to the rest of Roots while running 3.3-mile laps around Prospect Park. At the end of the book, when the novel breaks the fourth wall and transforms the narrator into a character in the genealogical story (“The baby boy, six weeks old, was me“), I actually gasped out loud. I hadn’t known that was going to happen; when you’re listening to an audio book you don’t read the back cover and you can’t glance down at a chapter’s last line. Then I cried, running down the hill by the Vanderbilt playground, stupid tears over the closeness of history.
Anyway, no one thinks it shameful for blind people to use audio books to read. No one thinks it makes them posers. So why do we disdain audio books for the rest of us? Does the dishonorable stain of abridgement color even the unabridged recording? Or do we think of them as one more neurotic American efficiency—of which everyone else might be taking better advantage than ourselves? Is it just, as someone I know put it recently, “those plummy theatrical voices”? Do we worry that audio books will overtake the simpler reading technologies to which we are sentimentally attached?
Or do we just think they’re not enough work? In 1939, when blind Americans were listening to those first Talking Book machines, the upstart critic Clement Greenberg argued that modern capitalism had forced art (read: all cultural production) into two forms, the avant-garde and the kitsch. This account is by now familiar: avant-garde art was difficult art, art about art, art that demanded work; kitsch was “trash” or “crap,” commercial or popular art, art that demanded no work at all. Kitsch was a product of the industrial revolution, which brought the working classes into the cities and exposed them to high culture. It was what happened to art when even poor people learned to read and when manufacturing technology became advanced enough that they too could have books and gadgets and other commodities. It was culture debased. It was “vicarious experience and faked sensations.” It pretended to demand nothing, and for precisely that reason it would take your soul.
So maybe we think audio books are kitsch. Maybe we like books to be an exclusive property; maybe audio books both threaten our eliteness and crowd our avant-garde. But do we really think this way anymore? The people who read this magazine, and the people with whom I go to graduate school, are not people who hate kitsch. We read Us Weekly on the beach. We think it’s funny to talk about how many KFC Double-Downs we are going to eat, and we also think it’s funny to eat them. We Gchat our friends incessantly asking whether they have watched the YouTube video we sent six minutes ago with the baby monkey wrestling the baby dog. We listen to Lady Gaga and Jay-Z and that Beyoncé song written by The-Dream, and we like them all both because they sound really good and because they marry kitsch to the avant-garde—because they are both art about art and art about mass-produced art, art about universally accessible art, the imitation of imitating-under-capitalism. Loving kitsch makes us feel deviant, but we know it is more likely to increase our social capital than to damage it. Kitsch is sexy. We are aficionados of the avant-garde, but kitsch is also our game.
What we do genuinely disdain is a third thing—that third category of art and culture that the critic Dwight Macdonald described as the middlebrow. Middlebrow art, for Macdonald, came between kitsch (which Macdonald called “lowbrow”) and avant-garde (which he called “highbrow”); it is art that tries too hard and ends up being too easy. It tries to make everyone cultured. It does not discriminate. It is vulgar because it reaches beyond its station. It’s for people who want to read the complete works of Balzac even though they also have to cook dinner.
This, I think, is our real problem with audio books, and it is also Esposito’s and Birkerts’s and Bloom’s. When these critics demand “active listening,” when they insist that the internal cognitive analytic effort they valorize must have an external manifestation (that only the motion of the eyes can render a person “open to wisdom”), they are saying that audio books are middlebrow. They don’t care whether you listen to Tracy Morgan’s I Am the New Black or Keith Richards’s Life; that stuff is already beneath their concern. What they don’t like is when you try to listen to Père Goriot. Reading is only reading, by this account, when it requires the constant assertion of will. Reading is that heroic and dignified effort of the raccoon resisting the shiny objects and paying sustained attention to the page. Novels that do not require effort, once-highbrow books suddenly made accessible even to raccoons and the dyslexic and people without the willpower to finish or even begin them in hardback, are art for strivers. They’re simply too easy to swallow.
But let’s be honest: when it comes to their own reading, nobody doesn’t like ease. I am lucky enough, at least for this year, to have a professional life that consists largely in reading as an act of will. Every week I have to read or reread a book or two books so that I can teach them in a seminar or run discussion sections about them or write something about them for my own educational purposes. When I’m not reading, I feel like I should be reading, and like I should be reading not Twitter or even longform.org but really hard things: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, a 1948 Marxist-Leninist tract called Negro Liberation, two biographies of Richard Wright totaling 1318 pages, Infinite Jest. When I do finally read one of those things, it usually does bring me actual joy, both in the accomplishment and in the process. But it is joy that requires will, and I only have so much will. Listening to a recorded book renders will a much smaller part of the equation. And that makes possible another kind of joy. When I finished The Mill on the Floss—when Flo Gibson told me that, in the end, they “were not divided”—I felt very sorry that the end had come. I had not felt that way in a long time.