Are audiobooks the same as reading?

I’ve just been checking out an interesting project over at Audible.com. It’s an audiobook called The Chopin Manuscript and is being billed as the first-ever audio serial book. It’s written by 15 successful thriller writers; Jeffery Deaver conceived of the characters, story and wrote the first chapter, with 14 other writers including David Hewson, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child contributing chapters and Deaver bringing it to its conclusion. It’s narrated by Alfred Molina and proved to be one of the fastest-selling audio titles of 2007.

I had heard of the book when it was first released in September but wanted to wait until all the chapters were available. Then I forgot about it until I was looking around Audible earlier. So far I’m enjoying it; I’ve just about finished Deaver’s chapter and the story is interesting, even if it does sound a little like The Da Vinci Code. Alfred Molina’s narration is excellent as well.

What’s interesting about the project is seeing so many writers not just embracing audiobooks but using them as a medium. So far there’s no printed version of The Chopin Manuscript and it feels very visual compared to other audiobooks. I’ve grown to like audiobooks over the last few years… I’m a fast reader but I enjoy listening to books as well and they’ve been very useful while I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

A lot of people don’t like audiobooks. I can understand that; they think it takes away from the reading experience, from the conversation between author and reader. Of those people, a number are very dismissive of listeners; I’ve offered audiobooks to people who haven’t been able to find the printed version, only to have it refused as it’s not “real reading”… I have a problem with that. I agree that audiobooks are not the same experience but to say they’re a lesser experience bugs me. What you get out of them is different, yes, but they both have value.

To me reading isn’t about interpreting words visually as much as understanding language. If someone’s telling a story then it doesn’t matter if I’m reading the words off the page or hearing them inside my head, that’s still reading. It provides a different experience, an auditory experience, but I’m still getting the same story. For certain books it can actually be an advantage, particularly if it’s a book that’s difficult to read. And if you think about it, listening to a story long predates the written word. When we’re listening to an audiobook we’re really tapping into our ancestors sitting by the campfire, listening to a storyteller weave his magic.

The main disadvantage with audiobooks is that the feeling can be quite different. I don’t know if you’ve listened to a book you’ve read previously but it feels different. The reason is because the narrator is interpreting the story rather than you; he or she places the emphasis on certain words differently than you might, so it’s never exactly the same. And sometimes dialogue which sounds right on the page doesn’t seem believable when read aloud. That’s why personally I’ll always prefer the printed page; I just like the feel and smell of paper, hearing the words in my own voice. But that doesn’t mean that I think audiobooks aren’t the same, just that I get something different from them. Usually the kind of audiobooks I listen to are classics or thrillers, which are more visual anyway, and I listen to quite a few short stories as well. I listen to them the same way I’d read normal books: on my own, unwinding with a good story.

If you’re interested in audiobooks, they can be a bit pricey, but Audible is great; they give you discounts and the subscription works out to a half-price book each month. They’ve also just been bought by Amazon so there’s a chance the prices might drop. And there’s Lit2Go as well, a great service on iTunes. It provides free audiobooks for download and the narration is excellent. You don’t need an iPod, just iTunes, and it’s well worth checking out.

What do you think of audiobooks, though? Do you listen to them? Is listening really the same as reading or does it make the experience lesser? Would you listen to The Chopin Manuscript or other audio-only titles? Maybe you could try the sample over at Audible and let me know what you think.