I love listening to podcasts, but for some reason I never got into audiobooks. I couldn’t quite connect with a novel by listening to it in the same way I did by reading it. Which I found odd. Oral storytelling is evolutionarily ingrained in humans, dating back to when our prehistoric ancestors told stories around the campfire. Therefore, audiobooks should be more natural than reading. Which explains why I prefer listening to podcasts over reading transcripts or articles. However, I still prefer reading books over audiobooks. Why the apparent discrepancy?
I think there are three main reasons:
Literal voice. In podcasts, you hear the voices of the actual people speaking. They’re not playing characters like in an audiobook (fiction, at least) where a narrator does the voices of several different characters. He or she might try to alter their voice to portray different characters, but it’s not the same thing.
When reading a novel, however; each character’s voice sounds distinct and authentic in my head. A young boy sounds like a young boy, rather than an older man altering his voice to sound like a young boy. This is even more jarring when a narrator portrays the opposite gender. While listening to audiobooks, I can still picture the book perfectly in my mind, but the character’s voices are always off, which takes me out of the story.
For certain audiobooks, this might not be as much of a problem, especially non-fiction written in the first-person and narrated by the author. In fiction, particularly talented voice actors might be able to overcome this hurdle, but even still, it won’t quite match the amount of voice detail I hear in my mind when reading.
2. Visual Distraction
For me, it’s easier to be distracted while listening to a fictional story. Often times the story goes in one ear and out the other without me comprehending what was said. This happens because I get distracted by the external world. I need to close my eyes in order to fully focus and listen completely to a fictional story. Which kind of defeats the purpose of an audiobook, in my opinion. Ideally, I would use them like podcasts and listen while doing something else (driving, exercising, doing chores). I can easily multitask while listening to podcasts (usually a conversation between two people) because they’re less demanding and don’t require visualizing a story and characters and setting like a novel. It’s much more difficult to multitask while listening to a novel. You need to visualize a scene in your head while your eyes are processing a completely different scene in the real world. At least with a book, even though my eyes are open, they are distracted, staring at the words on the page, so they can’t be distracted by the external world.
3. Perfect Speech is Unnatural
Written prose, while sounding beautiful when read in your head, often sounds stilted and unnatural when read aloud. Podcasts on the other hand, are full of fragments, pauses, backtracks, “ums,” “uhs,” and “likes.” Yet somehow all these grammatical mistakes actually enhance the listening experience for me because it sounds more natural. That’s the way people actually speak. However, if you were to transcribe a podcast conversation word-for-word, it would be unreadable. Audio and text are completely different mediums and the writing for each needs to reflect that difference.
There might be a way to have the best of both worlds: fully cast an audiobook with a narrator and actors to voice the dialogue of each unique character. Apparently Max Brooks did this with World War Z (and I’m sure there are others, as well), though I haven’t listened to an audiobook like that myself to judge how it compares to reading. Full-cast audiobooks may be more expensive to produce, but I think they will be the future of the medium. There should ideally be an alternate version of the text, specifically edited for the audio version. This would mostly eliminate dialog tags because there’s no need to identify which character is speaking with “he said” or “she said” when we can tell who’s speaking from their voice. Though even then, an audiobook full of A-list voice actors may never quite match up to the voices you hear inside your head while reading, in the same way that a film adaptation of your favorite book often lets you down.
But I don’t know. Maybe this problem I have with audiobooks is more a problem with me and my attention span than with audiobooks themselves. Many people seem to love audiobooks as they are. Even still, I think there’s something unique about text-based stories that other mediums can never match—and vice versa. Books may disappear and be replaced by electronic tablets which will then be replaced by brain implants or some future invention that is unimaginable. But no matter how advanced technology gets, I think people will always experience stories through the written word.