Audiobooks in context

A singing donkey that could also be a donkey recording an audiobook, Abbeville, BM, 3 (13th/14th-century France)

The Times reported this week that the audiobook market is growing at the expense of ebooks; that the arch-enemy of the printed page is not the digital page, but the audio file. And that is due to wireless headphones, advances in technology, particularly sound quality and ease of use, and famous actors turned storytellers.

This explanation is as compelling as it is misleading. The deep cause of audiobook popularity is not technology or famous-voice readouts, but reading contextualities. Our lifestyles are far less sedentary than they used to be, and the book market has been slow in acknowledging this cultural shift. We spend far more time moving than previous generations, while books have kept telling us that we need to stop being moving targets to enjoy them. We haven’t stopped, and they cannot keep up with us. Enter audiobooks.

Audiobooks fill the space between our new needs caused by new lifestyles and the inability of traditional reading (forget the printed/electronic books divide) to put us in reading mode. Long commutes lend themselves to visual reading, but only if you have a seat, are in relative comfort (not sandwiched as we are in London at rush hour), and the book is easy to hold. Otherwise, the moment is lost, and reading is deferred to a better context, perhaps home, but then exhaustion takes its toll.

We want books read to us while we cannot visually read them. We want books read to us during those moments when the possibility of reading flickers dimly in our mind. Audiobooks are a nice experience, but they can only claim a foie-gras-share of the market. Don’t mind what they say about famous voices enchanting listeners: you wouldn’t spend 20 hours or more listening to your favourite actor just for that reason.

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