Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

Art Edwards
Art Edwards
19 min read

I couldn’t finish Ulysses. This was 1994, the year after I’d graduated from Arizona State University with an English degree, and the year that my rock band started providing a living from playing gigs in Tempe. Both of these events left me divorced from a reading community I’d come to rely on since my junior college days in Moline, Illinois, when I took a class that required the reading of eight novels. I read those novels—which included A Clockwork Orange, The Awakening, 1984—found them more daring and provocative than anything in rock music, and started entertaining the idea that I too might write one someday. It would be 10 years after that class before I would quit my band and jump headfirst into novel writing. Until then, I was left with a music life that paid the bills but ultimately didn’t ask much from me, and a literary life that felt stalled—no more instructors leading me down the path of great literature; no more parsing the differences between romanticism, realism, and naturalism; no more Shakespeare plays. I was on my own.

Fortunately, I had the wide world of books to explore. I kept filling the holes in my literary background with what I saw as important books I hadn’t yet read, and I religiously tackled novels by the writers I’d been taught to believe were our literary flag bearers. Faulkner and Hemingway were favorites, and I also made a point to read everything published by James Joyce. My venture into Joyce’s oeuvre, however, ended abruptly. I’d consumed Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man during my ASU years, but Ulysses, generally considered his most important novel, was far too slow and dense and really trivial for me to fight through the 700 pages. I got hung up at around page 150—some bar scene—and quit.

This was more disconcerting than it should’ve been. Not only did I loathe getting that far into a book without finishing it, but this was Ulysses, judged by many as the most important novel in English published over the past 100 years. I’d had the chutzpah to fight through the 400 pages of The Sound and the Fury, and I’d hung on until the bitter end of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Still, these were lightweights compared to Ulysses. This book was other-worldly boring. Reading it, I got to the point that I knew I wasn’t getting anything from it, so I put it on my bookshelf and hoped it would somehow read itself—or maybe impress the people who happened by my bookshelf.

The residue of this failure, however, stuck with me. I’d earned my degree in a haze of mystification. I chose English as a major because—to my teenage mind—smart people read books, and I wanted to be a smart person. I hadn’t been much of a reader in high school, preferring—if any book—nonfiction titles about rock heroes such as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Jim Morrison. The first novel I was assigned in college, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was over 500 pages. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get through it in two weeks, but I made it in time and actually liked it. As I attended ASU, I hunted down the reading lists of my English classes over summer and Christmas breaks to get head starts on the assignments. A music and pop culture hound, I’d never trained myself to read books in large quantities, but I managed to graduate with my BA having read every word of every book I’d been assigned. In a few years, I’d transformed myself into a curious reader of canonized literature.

And here was the supposed most important novel of the century, and I couldn’t finish it. Not only did this end my string of at least getting through the classics, it made me question if I really had what it took to be a novelist.

*     *     *

The solution to this problem came during a trip to my local Borders bookstore. Perusing the aisles, I came upon an abridged copy of Ulysses in the audiobooks section. Made by the BBC, it consisted of four CDs, each with selections from the novel. I’d never heard of an audiobook—it somehow felt like cheating, a kind of aural CliffsNotes—but I bought the pricey thing and plugged it into my car stereo on the way home.

At first, what I found there felt like story-time for adults. There were sections read by professional Irish actors of followable narrative—Stephen Dedalus’s early interactions with roommate Buck Mulligan—and an introduction to another main character, Leopold Bloom, and his various domestic concerns. The medium was appealing in its way without being arresting—not the shot in the arm of putting in a music CD but stimulating enough as I drove home.

I continued listening to the audiobook over the next few weeks. The narrative thread slowed to a creep—just as I’d remembered—and I was left with nothing but beautifully read prose that lacked much of an arc. The whole was something closer to verbal jazz. I knew Joyce had been something of a musician, and somehow I suspected he would’ve liked this description. The words were pleasant to hear in and of themselves. This book was valid not so much as something to follow but something to listen to. It was music. I knew how to listen to music.

I spent the better part of that hot Arizona summer popping the next Joyce CD in as soon as the previous one had finished. At first, I just let the words wash over me. Then I started memorizing parts, “Hey- ho, Hey-ho,” I intoned with Buck Mulligan at the book’s beginning. “Yes, I will, yes,” I echoed Molly Bloom from the book’s final section. Through my band, I’d started a musical career that would be validating in its way, but my audio Ulysses served as a nice counterbalance to all that frenetic energy. The book represented something bigger, something I didn’t want to lose track of.

But I did lose track of it. My Ulysses discs were lost—like so many other discs in Arizona and everywhere else—when my truck got broken into. The thieves took the stereo and all of my carelessly placed CDs. It’s easy to imagine how disappointed they must’ve been when they got home to find they’d just swiped five hours of James Joyce. I’m sure the discs wound up in the trash somewhere, which is too bad, because I really liked them. I managed to buy a replacement set of cassette versions, which I still own, but a glance at them reveals they were never played much. It seems my need for them had worn off.

I couldn’t get past the fact that I was unable to finish the paper version of Ulysses, but I listened to the abridged audio version repeatedly to the point of memorization. I remember one of my first ever creative writing classes. After leaving my band and the livelihood it provided, my wife and I moved to San Francisco, and I signed up for a writing workshop at UC Berkeley Extension taught by Lewis Buzbee. Lewis was a bookish man in his 40s, and he impressed me with his clear love of reading and writing, as well as his dedication to literary champions such as Chekhov, Woolf, and Flaubert.

At one point during one of his lectures, Lewis asked the class, “Who knows the first line of Ulysses?” Eager to impress, I shouted, “Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit.” Lewis couldn’t help but smile. I was of course wrong. The first line of Ulysses starts “Stately plump, Buck Mulligan…” I knew this line too, but the “Come up, Kinch” line from my audio version jumped out of my mouth. Despite my mistake, I’d clearly branded myself a lover of the classics to Lewis—which is funny, since I hadn’t read the book.

This last point stuck with me. I’m a devoted reader. I want to be a dedicated audience to whatever book I’m reading. I don’t want to flip through piece after piece waiting for one that will grab me and not let go—like I might online. When it’s time to read, I don’t want to be grabbed. I want to commune with a great mind, wordsmith, soul. For the right experience, I submit myself to it willingly.

Yet I couldn’t dismiss that I was far more taken by the audiobook version than the paper version of Ulysses. I felt like it had taught me more than reading the book ever could. How many memorized lines could I blurt off the top of my head from the books I’d read, even ones I loved? There was “All right then, I’ll go to hell” from Huckleberry Finn, “My mother is a fish” from As I Lay Dying. I could recite almost all of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, could muddle through some of the closing paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. But I could recite several lines from Ulysses. This is of course a byproduct of repeatedly hearing the passages as opposed to reading them, but doesn’t that count? Hadn’t I communed with a great wordsmith, a great soul? If not, what had I communed with?

An exploratory study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 offers some answers on what happens when we read and/or listen to prose. The study measured the mind-wandering, memory of the text, and interest of college students. Some of the students read a book passage silently, others read the same passage aloud, and still others listened to an audiobook version of the passage. The researchers found that the groups that read the passage aloud scored best overall. The key to reading well, these findings suggest, is to experience the text simultaneously through the eye, ear, and tongue. Surely my retention of so much of Ulysses was the result of my repeated listening, but I also recited many of the lines along with the actors. Maybe this helped me retain to more and thus to know it more.

With Ulysses, the habit of listening to books was established, and once my wife and I moved to Ashland, Oregon, I found more opportunities for book listening. For my wife’s work, we traveled across the country by truck up to three times a year, long days with nothing but open road and little entertainment. The perfect time to catch up on neglected literary classics! A tome as large as War & Peace could be dispatched in one round trip to the central time zone. Still, we preferred more contemporary offerings such as Middlesex and Memoirs of a Geisha.

The best experiences were when I liked an audiobook so much I had to buy and read the book. Such was the case with The Corrections. Thankfully, its audiobook was abridged, which meant the listening experience served as a kind of long sampler to the main course of the novel. Other audio versions were so wonderful and complete in themselves I almost regretted having heard the audiobook first. The Things They Carried falls into this category. Some audiobooks struck me as new, vivid renderings of books I already loved (Slaughterhouse-Five, A Confederacy of Dunces). Others clued me in to authors that ultimately did not appeal to me, saving me the effort of trying their books. Then there were instances when I didn’t like the audiobook’s narrator and couldn’t finish it. I found that I looked forward to these road trips so I could listen to whatever audio version I’d recently corralled. At their best, audiobooks weren’t mere time-saving substitutes for difficult books but genuine artistic expressions in themselves.

Still, if I had to narrow down what audiobooks meant to me to a single benefit, they allowed me the chance to absorb popular books I wouldn’t normally have time to read. The painful truth of my reading life is that I read slowly. It’s not uncommon for me to read only 10 or 20 pages per night, which puts my time spent reading a 300-page book at about three weeks. Over the course of a year, that comes to roughly 17 books. This isn’t a horribly small number, but compared to my other writer friends whose number of yearly books read reaches into the high two and even three figures, I have to be selective. Not so with audiobooks. When everyone was raising a fuss about the falsity of A Million Little Pieces, I didn’t have to find time to read it. I just bought the audiobook for our next trip. When rock memoirs by Bob Dylan and Patti Smith were released, I didn’t have to stop reading Denis Johnson to get through them. I bought the audio versions and waited until our next long drive. The one constant of my reading life is that I always want to read more. If audiobooks offered me nothing else, they offered me that.

Or did they? Was I reading these books? I didn’t know. A search online revealed a piece on the subject quoting Daniel Willingham, a psychologist from the University of Virginia and author of 2017’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads: “What you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.” In other words, one’s ability to listen well to an audiobook corresponds directly to one’s ability to read well—the issue is largely a matter of personal preference. Regardless of whether I’d read these titles, I was certainly familiar with them. I understood what people meant by the dentist scene of A Million Little Pieces, and I discovered I loved the first cafeteria scene from that book. I also loved Bob Dylan’s recounting of his time as a young fan of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, and I was riveted by Patti Smith’s story of her early years as an artist in ’70s-era New York City. I couldn’t tell if I was missing much by listening to these titles, and ultimately I didn’t care. Unless days magically became longer, it was entirely possible I wouldn’t know anything about the contents of these books without listening to their audiobooks. If I were losing something in translation, it was better than losing everything.

Moreover, I couldn’t get past the idea that I might have been getting more from the audiobook experience than if I’d read the book. Listening to a good audiobook version often felt more engaging, enriching—just plain better—than reading a book. Book adaptations to film seem an important comparison. Doesn’t everyone complain about how much better book versions are when compared to film versions? With film, there are all of these intrusions on the book experience. First, the scriptwriter often changes elements of the book to heighten or externalize the drama. Then, the actors offer their sometimes heavy-handed takes on book characters we hold dear. Settings don’t strike us as quite right, special effects make big shows of themselves. Give me back my book!

Most of the contemporary audiobooks I listened to seemed to go out of their way to stay true to the book: an engaging, unobtrusive reader; few if any edits to the text; no—or virtually no—sound effects. It was like having the author’s work piped straight into my head without the decoding associated with reading. At times, it was hard not to feel audiobooks advanced the reading process, made the experience easier for those who might want or need to forgo a book reading experience. At home, I still jealously guarded my reading time, but I could imagine a future devoid of books, replaced entirely by audio versions—a dystopian view, to my mind, but maybe I was being precious.

*     *     *

I knew the day was coming, but that didn’t make it any less difficult. In early 2015, I would be forced to quit my wife’s and my freelance life and take a job—a real job. At least we were in Portland, Oregon by then, which offered more opportunities for work than Ashland. I managed to find a job as a writer for a law firm. While this position took advantage of my chosen craft, the job was a real one in every sense: nine-to-five, in a cubicle, with a boss, and—worst of all—a daily 43-mile round-trip commute.

I’d loved my 12 years of working more or less as my own boss, which left plenty of time to write, but those days were over. I would have to cut my personal writing aspirations to the bare necessities. I left less interesting endeavors such as screenplays and freelance pieces behind, spent 300 dollars on oxfords and khakis, jumped into my pickup on a rainy January morning, and in five minutes found myself in the rat race. Of course, I didn’t go unarmed. I’d checked out Keith Richards’s A Life from the library, and as soon as traffic ground to a stop I popped the first CD into the player. The consolation prize of so much commuting meant I could listen to audiobooks as much as I wanted. With over eight hours a week to spend in traffic for the foreseeable future, I would have lots of time to explore any number of titles, the longer the better.

A Life serves as a perfect example. It should be noted that I’d been writing fiction about musicians for well over a decade, and I found the recent boon in the autobiographies of music heavyweights to be a promising development for the lit world. I also felt that these books were passing me by. I liked Keith Richards enough, but would I ever set aside two months to read 700 pages by him? I could digest the audio version in a month of commuting, and I wouldn’t have to stop my nighttime reading of The Pale King. Maybe this job thing wasn’t so bad after all. I enjoyed A Life, and I followed it with Who I Am, the autobiography of Pete Townsend, and Girl in a Band by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. These titles made sitting in traffic tolerable, and I was glad to add what they had to offer to my stockpile of music knowledge. I would never again think of any of these musicians without remembering details from these stories.

I soon learned that these drives could offer more than biographical info. In an effort to keep informed, I checked out the 20-disc, 25-hour Capital in the 21st Century, an exhaustive tome by the world-famous economist Thomas Piketty. This book analyzes virtually all economic data dating back 200 years to predict what might happen to the world’s economy in the 21st century (short answer, it doesn’t look good). I found I had to listen more attentively to this title than past audiobooks, turning the stereo off at points if traffic got crazy, not wanting to miss key elements that would keep me in the dark for hours afterwards. From this book I got the most thorough and compelling political argument I’d ever gotten from any perspective, and since the thing was 800 pages in book form, there is no way I would’ve gotten it but through audiobook.

I kept up with audiobooks of literary contemporaries. Zadie Smith became a favorite in audio form, as well as Jonathan Franzen. Despite having enjoyed reading their previous efforts, I liked being able to consume their new books without having to find the time to read them, and this left my evenings free to get through indie titles and books to review. When I heard about a fiction offering by a major publisher that interested me, I put its audio version on hold at the library. This led to me listening to all of Dave Eggers’s novels, a portion of George Saunders’s oeuvre, and older titles I’d managed to miss by Gary Shteyngart and Katherine Dunn. I was becoming quite “well read” in contemporary literature, and all I had to do was drive to work.

Still, if I associate my time commuting with listening to one author’s work, it’s Karl Ove Knausgård. Once I started to hear people chat about this author’s work online, I sensed his books were tailor-made for me. His six-part roman á clef had the sheen of a major literary event, Proustian in scope, but also with something contemporary about it. Writers on social media were excited about the series. Some blocked out their summers to read as much of it as possible. I bought the book version of Book 1: My Struggle and dug in.

The charm of Knausgård’s My Struggle is that his fiction reads like memoir. The main character is the author himself, and the events of the book feel very immediate as he chronicles minor yet telling incidents from his past. The intimacy the reader feels while learning of the author’s most traumatizing or embarrassing moments is acute—you wouldn’t be too far from the mark to describe the series as one giant social media overshare by someone very in touch with his feelings. I devoured Book 1 and immediately procured the audio version of Book 2 for my morning commutes. I eventually worked through all of the available audio titles several times. Its appeal is substantial to me. I could start the whole thing over right now.

Central to the audiobook’s appeal was its narrator, an actor named Edoardo Ballerini. Ballerini seemed to have a preternatural instinct for Knausgård’s material, so much so that I listened to each book with almost no conscious understanding that Ballerini’s voice wasn’t Knausgård’s. I’d been to enough author events to know that writers typically aren’t the best readers of their works. More often than not, they move too quickly through the prose, not really rendering the story so much as getting it over with. Actors are trained for the un-self-conscious reading of intimate material to an audience. My Struggle struck me as a kind of ideal audiobook—a cutting-edge contemporary writer who understood how he felt and wasn’t afraid to say it, and an actor with an innate sense for the material. My Struggle, for me, is the Sgt. Pepper’s of audiobooks.

Listening to these titles, I couldn’t help but wonder, at what point was the written word dubbed superior to the oral tradition? I vividly remember the “Reading is Fundamental” campaign from my childhood in the ’70s and ’80s. Implied in their TV commercials was the sense that reading was the best way to acquire knowledge, that it somehow trumped other ways of learning. As a kid, I preferred the more passive entertainment avenue of TV. From “Reading is Fundamental,” I internalized a belief that reading was the more enriching experience because it was harder. Through audiobooks, however, I easily acquired a wealth of literary enrichment straight through my ears. I decided it was time to let go of my childish prejudice. Audiobooks were just as intellectually valuable as reading a book, while also being pleasurable in their own way. All things being equal, there was no reason to forgo an audiobook for a book experience. Relax, throw in some Knausgård, and enjoy yourself.

*     *     *

I eventually discovered the main drawback of audiobooks while listening to Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Walter was a writer I’d been meaning to read for years, and I had found it at my local library. Once on the interstate, I popped the first CD into the stereo, and lo and behold, there was Edoardo Ballerini, the actor I associated with Knausgård. This was fantastic news. The readers of these books can greatly impact my level of enjoyment. I would very much look forward to hearing this book over the next few weeks.

Beautiful Ruins taught me just how influential the reader is to the audiobook. As I listened to the title, in an immediate and unavoidable sense, the sound of Ballerini’s voice made me feel like I was listening to a Knausgård book. This voice was so present and constant and reminiscent of my Knausgård experience I almost couldn’t believe it. It didn’t help that Walter’s style is vaguely similar to Knausgård’s. Both authors favor simple, well-constructed prose without much need for elaborate wordsmithing. Some of their settings overlapped when Walter’s characters headed to Europe. Still, Walter’s novel is more traditional and plot-driven than Knausgård’s, who favors more personal, confessional prose and a seemingly unstructured plot. This would have been an important distinction had I read both titles, but under the influence of Ballerini, it didn’t matter. Ballerini used similar acting techniques when a character was apprehensive, or contemplative, or panicked. Indeed, he should—his techniques are very effective—but it greatly blurred the distinction between these two writers, almost conflating them into one. I thought I was listening to Knausgård and Walter. I was, in fact—in a very real sense—listening to Ballerini.

This represents an important way in which audiobooks aren’t like reading the book. Reading is a more intimate connection between one person and another. When one reads a book, one communes with the author. Sure, editors and publishers have some say in what goes into a book, but the roles of these people and entities are often transparent compared to the fundamental communication from writer to reader. In the audiobook form, there’s a soul obtrusively in between the writer and reader—the narrator—who takes over the role as central communicator. Even if the text is read word-for-word, the way the narrator’s voice sounds is too present and their inflections too dominant not to be the main influencer of the experience. Imagine a musical artist you don’t particularly care for covering your favorite song. (A live ’80s cover of “Stairway to Heaven” by some band I thankfully can’t remember just popped into my head.) Do you like this version of the song? Probably not. It might turn you off the song forever.

I love audiobooks for a number of reasons. I love them if the text is more ephemeral and the reader is a really good performer. I love them when the text is more logical and the reader has capacity as a good teacher. I love them when I feel like I should be more aware of a title but don’t want to stop my personal reading to take the time to read it. Of all of the maybe 100 audio titles I’ve listened to, I regret having heard only a few. To top it off, my listening happens almost exclusively while driving, filling this time with something more productive than talk radio or station hopping. Clearly, other people are finding value in audiobooks as well. The Audiobook Publishers Association (APA) reported a 12 percent increase in audiobook sales in 2020 to $1.3 billion, this despite the pandemic’s deleterious effects on commuting to work. I know I haven’t found a better way to take advantage of drive time.

Still, it becomes necessary for me to think of audiobooks as entertainment modes in themselves—something akin to a drastically pared down film version of a book, with the role of author mutating into narrator. This narrator might give unusually high credence to the author’s words, but the subtle resonances of their voices are the central message being communicated. It’s still possible to commune with a great soul in this way, but first and foremost, it’s with the soul of an actor—nothing wrong with that, but not necessarily what I’m looking for.

In 2017, while scrolling through my library’s online titles, I found an audiobook version of Ulysses that I hadn’t previously known about. Unlike the BBC version from my past, this one was unabridged—the whole of Ulysses, word for word, over 20 discs and 27 hours. I knew listening to this would require fortitude, but hadn’t I already made it through the audio version of Capital in the 21st Century? It was time to battle the titan. On a sunny Monday morning in September, I steeled myself for the experience and popped the first CD into the stereo.

The narrators weren’t as appealing as my BBC actors, and whole sections were boring over several days. The process took over a month, but I eventually made it. I celebrated by declaring myself free of ever having to try the book again. I might never have read Ulysses, but no one can deny that I know it.


Art Edwards’s work has appeared at Salon, the Believer, the Writer, and many others. His recently completed novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band. You can follow him on Twitter @artedwardsIII.

Feature image: by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash 

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