Reading books, with your ears
Audiobooks aren’t a new phenomenon. Ever since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and made it possible to replay recorded sound, spoken word recordings have been around. But in the past few years, audiobooks have really taken off, and created a niche for themselves that could forever change the way we interact with the written word.
The present day audiobook is, obviously, very different from the early spoken word recordings. The first real audiobooks were meant to provide reading material for war veterans injured in World War I, and other visually impaired adults in the 1930s, taking advantage of close-grooved records, which made it possible to hold up to 20 minutes of speech. But the recent boom is unprecedented. In the United Kingdom, for instance, in 2018, the sales of print books fell for the first time in five years, but that of audiobooks rose by a whopping 43%. In the United States, audiobook sales in 2018 were worth as much as $940 million, a growth of 24.5% over 2017 (According to Forbes, this was the seventh year in a row that the audiobook industry saw double digit growth).
Along with the increasing popularity of podcasts and the rise of voice user interfaces (VUI) such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana, audiobooks mark a shift in the way we consume information and interact with technology. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find time to sit in one place for extended periods of time to read a book, the habit of listening to something — such as audiobooks and podcasts — while commuting, driving, or doing other work around the house, appears to be here to stay. In fact, it has been found that 74% of audiobook consumers listen to the books in their car. This is not to say that traditional reading is dying out. A survey also found that 83% of audiobook listeners had also read a print book over the previous 12 months, while 79% also read an e-book. Even though the words may be the same as in a print book, the sensorium of the audiobook, the pleasures of having a book read to you — of reading with your ears — are markedly different. Authors and performers such as Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman, who are vocal advocates of audiobooks, have read aloud many of their own and other texts as audiobooks, debunking the long-held view that reading must be a visual experience, and that the nuances of structure and emotion can only be appreciated through reading the words on a page.