A middle-aged man slouches at food court table, open book in hand, headphones perched on his head.
“Look,” I say. “He’s doing that thing I do.”
“Reading?” says K, my wife.
“But, like, also listening to the book,” I said. “At the same time.”
“Okay,” says K, still somehow not catching my enthusiasm.
Before this uncanny encounter, I had suspected there must be others who, like me, have taken to reading in this way: listening to books while simultaneously reading the text. Food court guy confirmed this theory. (Is this how astrophysicists felt photographing a black hole?)
Of course, fans of audiobooks are not as rare as a pic of a dead star. A number of friends and colleagues — those with long commutes, for instance — listen to books.
But people who listen and read simultaneously?
“Not unusual,” says K.
Except, isn’t it? I maintain that this method of reading (what to call it? ‘audio-reading?’ ‘read-listening?’) is something of a secret, that food court guy and I are an uncommon breed. We may not be, after all, as my wife and a handful of ‘life hack’ articles can confirm.
While it’s unclear just how many of us there are out there, what is clear is this method’s effectiveness. Using audiobooks as a reading aid has helped me rediscover a love of reading.
What’s more, I have become the category of reader I’d always wanted to be: a voracious one.
When I set out to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, notorious for its length and density, I knew I was in for an exercise in stamina. To avoid getting bored and giving up, I would need a smarter approach. I needed help.
Joyce’s take on Homer’s Odyssey remains a monument of the Western canon, and a sort of rite of passage for students of English lit. The kind of book you read not because it is particularly easy — you don’t bring Joyce to the beach — but because there is there. Whether you enjoy the thing doesn’t matter. (Don’t at me Joyceans).
Ulysses presents you with a destination and a path, though that path is a long and arduous one. Arduous because its language is notoriously difficult and, at times, virtually incomprehensible.
And long: with some editions clocking in at over 1,000 pages, it is up there with a Knausgaard novel or the Bible.
Reading Ulysses is, like its Homerian namesake, an odyssey in itself. And for us slow readers, well — it becomes more of a pilgrimage, performed through prostration.
Twice I had begun and aborted reading this book. I reread whole passages in an effort to decipher its meaning. I would fall asleep, the physical and metaphysical weight of its pages pressing down on my chest. I got bored.
On the verge of throwing in the towel a third time, I discovered that a YouTube user had uploaded the audiobook. Its 54 hours, though still daunting in its scope, defined the parameters of the challenge.
What I discovered next was a sort of cruise control button: YouTube’s speed toggle. If I doubled the playback speed, I could cut my reading time to 27 hours. Still a long time, but certainly more reasonable. I’ve dedicated more time to flying, or to nursing a hangover.
YouTube’s limited functionality prompted me to explore more,ahem, legitimate ways to access audiobooks on my mobile device. Though there are a number of options out there, like Scribd and Audbile, I opted for Libby, an app which pairs seamlessly with my local public library account.
This move unlocked two possibilities: first, the ability to download the audiobook, removing the need for wifi; and second, the freedom to micro-adjust the playback speed. (YouTube’s toggle is only set to .25 increments, and does not go beyond 2x speed, and is not available at all on the mobile app.)
Because audiobook narrators are often professional voice actors, and read with care and clarity, at 2.65x the original speed words peel off the page at a clip while remaining intelligible to the listener.
The voice in my headphones became my pacer, its rapid lilt my metronome. When at times I found my gaze straying from the page, the narrator, eager and tireless, kept on and coaxed me to keep up.
Pages turned; I found myself completing a chapter per sitting. In this way I read Ulysses in six weeks. That is less time than it took me to apply for a passport, or even to write this essay.
I might not have read Ulysses but for some help. But the audiobook did not immediately present itself as an obvious tool.
I have long thought of audiobooks as … unsexy. A dated medium. The weird cousin of physical books. My impression of audiobooks was a a row of fat plastic boxes housing dozens of discs or cassettes, the shelf tucked away in a dusty corner of the library.
Plus, in our very visual culture, listening to a story seemed a quaint method of experiencing stories. Reading words off a page for some reason seemed somehow more more legitimate.
Executives at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation seemed to concur when, faced with a budget shortfall in 2012, it eliminated funding for its radio drama programming. Studios which for decades were used to create radioplays were dismantled. This wasn’t the 1930s; listeners no longer gathered around the radio listening to a story.
But recent trends indicate that that is not the case. The advent of the smartphone has radically altered the way we consume auditory media. Those dusty plastic boxes have been replaced with MP3s and AACs. You can carry a dozen copies of Ulysses-length novels in your front pocket. Listening has never been more convenient.
And listening to stories has perhaps never been more popular. Young adults are as likely to discuss their favorite podcasts than their favorite movie. When the Serial phenomenon captured the attention of many, K and I found ourselves one Friday night glued to the latest installment, looking at one another at dramatic moments.
We are, in a way, gathered once more around the radio. Or perhaps it’s not that listening to stories is in again as that they they never stopped being popular. We are, in a way, hard-wired to want to listen to a good story. But the conditions must be favorable.
Vinyl is experienced a resurgence in interest from music-lovers and audiophiles who crave more than the buck-a-song, iTunes experience.
The rise in audiobook sales — up 22% in 2018 alone — testifies to this surge in audiophilia. Publishers are investing in audiobooks like never before, with departments dedicated solely to the production of audio versions of all of their titles.
Amazon has emerged as a competitor to the big-name publishers in Canada when they launched their own audiobokk platform, Audible.
Other platforms recognize the need for the audio treatment. The New Yorker provides the option of listening to its short stories. I was surprised one day to discover that Medium had created an audio version of one of my essays.
So audiobooks have come into their own. Now more than ever, we seem to be making room for listening in the way we consume stories.
Is a story meant to be consumed? Can anything ingested in a food court be truly savoured?
I think this is where my wife’s skepticism of read-listening comes in. To compare a book to a journey is a kind of reduction. It dishonors the experience.
The gamification of reading often has the opposite of its intended effect. (There is nothing quite like a high school English class to turn young people off of reading.)
To subject an activity as subtle and personal as reading to the lifehack treatment is, at best, rather missing the point and, at worst, the very death of reading.
And yet, this approach to reading is popular. Reading challenges abound. Apps like GoodReads encourage us to track and share. Yes, they risk distracting us from the spontaneity of reading, and the connection we can build with a good book. They deny that strong connections can take time.
There is a similar risk by equating reading a book to a journey, to think of your page count as a sort of odometer. It’s all a bit obsessive, and risks missing the point, which is that we read for pleasure and for discovery. Few journeys are defined by the mileage you clock on the odometer, but rather by the moments that mark the spaces as the numbers roll over.
The new views, the moments of boredom and surprise: this is why we set out. The panoramas and the minutiae of the process. What makes you interesting is not the distance you’ve traveled, or the speed at which you did it, but the degree to which that journey has made you a more interesting, interested person.
That is, I suppose, what food court guy and I have discovered: that using an audiobook as a complement to traditional reading can provide the motivation to set out on the path, and to complete the journey in good time.
And so as long as there are five hundred books on my reading list, with big ones among them, I’ll take all the motivation I can get, even if motivation looks like a smartphone, a wifi signal, a set of headphones perched on my head.
And beside an open copy of Ulysses, a crumpled burrito wrapper.