Lately I've been listening to a lot of books on Audible.com, the largest audio book producer and retailer in the United States. I pay a flat monthly fee and accumulate credits that I can save or spend on books that I select from the website. Audible has been a subsidiary of Amazon.com since 2008, and its retail site is easy to navigate, making it a snap to buy, download and listen to books through my iPhone. It even interfaces with my Goodreads, another company owned by Amazon, so I can post my review as soon as I finish listening.
But is listening to a book the same as reading?
I don't think so. It's a different kind of interaction with the story. Other than convenience, there aren't many advantages to listening to a book rather than reading it. In some regards, listening presents considerable disadvantages.
On different occasions I was listening to audiobook collections of linked stories: Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories, which I talked about in my most recent column, and Ann Beattie's The State Weíre In: Maine Stories. One of the pleasures of reading stories that share characters or allude to common events is the frisson of recognition that arises when your brain makes a connection that you can't quite articulate.
While reading a book in the traditional manner, one simply flips the pages or searches the digital file until the connection is confirmed. But "flipping around" an audio file is impractical and irritating. The ear doesn't "remember" in quite the same way that the eye does. It was not unusual to feel a flickering sense of familiarity as I was introduced to a character I thought I'd encountered before, which then it disappeared. I was always feeling like I was missing out on something.
Of course, part of this has to do with the way I consume audio books: I listen to them while driving my car to and from Los Angeles or while walking in the park or on the beach. If I listened to these books the same way that I usually read books—sitting on my couch or reclining in bed, attentive and reflective, with my attention directed solely at the page or screen—I would probably miss less.
However, the format's failings are counterbalanced by the contributions of the voice actors who read the work. Take for example, In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and read by Imogen Church. The novel is set in England, a place I know mostly from books, music and the BBC.
Although the story is told from the point of view of an introverted crime writer who goes to a remote house in the woods to celebrate an old friend's hen night (the British equivalent of a bachelorette party), it's really an ensemble story with six characters, all of them English. It's a psychological thriller in the Agatha Christie mold. Ware alludes to Christie's And Then There Were None several times. Church's brilliant reading makes each character clear with a personality all his or her own, and she uses variations of London accents to make distinctions that this American listener would have missed on the page.
Clearly, Church is more than just reading. The experience is comparable to listening to a performance by an exceptionally talented monologist. As a result, I have strong feelings about and attachments to each of these characters. The narrator strikes me as a bit neurotic though she's not nearly as high-strung as the maid of honor, who seems to be on the verge of a breakdown. And the bride comes across as both mysterious and coolly manipulative. How much of these impressions come from Church's performance or Ware's prose?
The answer, I think, is both. They're entwined in much the same way that nature (prose) versus nurture (performance) arguments always end up circling back on each other. For a novel of suspense, which In a Dark, Dark Wood most certainly is, the combination is supremely compelling.
I do have some issues with the way Ware reveals information about her protagonist. While the reader learns about the guests as the gathering unfolds, the author deliberately withholds information about the narrator's past, which could be revealed at any time. That's not suspense; that's manipulative story telling and it's no less irritating in audio format than it would be between the covers of a book. Sadly, the option of throwing an audiobook (i.e. my iPhone) across the room makes it prohibitively expensive.