Fiction, Life Writing

Sounds of Silence: Audiobooks and the Reader

I’ve been listening to audiobooks. I’ve had friends and colleagues tell me that this is a thing that I should be doing for ages. This makes sense, I’m busy, I’m overcommitted, I commute and I do a lot of walking. Audiobooks should be a way of maximising productivity and pleasure in one hit. In some ways, they have been. I enjoy being read to, there’s something delightful and childish about it. I find it comforting.

I also find it hard to concentrate, and I often have to go back and repeat entire chapters. I realise that as I’ve been cleaning, walking, staring out of the train window, whatever, I’ve lost half a story. In one ear, out the other.

This lack of focus is something I find disconcerting, I like to think that I give books undivided attention, although in reality it highlight to me the ways in which I fall in and out of books, putting down one to pick up another. If anything, with audiobooks, I’m more focussed than I am with print texts: I only listen to one at a time. Most recently I’ve dabbled in both fiction and memoir/lite-research.

I listen to these books through BorrowBox (available through GooglePlay and for IOS). This enables me to listen to audiobooks for free through my Melbourne Library Service login. There’s a number of other apps for this as well, and I recommend downloading all the apps to which your library has access. This enables you to diversify your access, as different apps have different licences. Basically, it gives you more books from which to choose. I also found that BorrowBox worked when I was overseas, so I could borrow, download and return books while I travelled. This was especially good for budget flights which might not have in-plane/on train entertainment.

My two most recent forays into audiobooks were Nutshell by Ian McEwan and Saga Land by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason. Both of these books were interesting, and I enjoyed them, although I do feel like I only superficially engaged with either text. McEwan’s novella was a post-modern reimagining of Hamlet. Told from the perspective of the foetal prince, it explored his anxieties about ethics, obligation, and experience. The passage that shook me the most included the foetus railing against so-called identity politics. This seemed out of place, given Hamlet is a play that explores the tensions that existed as the modern concepts of what it is to be human were developed – namely the conflicts between the young prince’s functional obligations as a son and a prince, in contrast with his personal needs, wants and desires – it seemed to me short-sighted that the post-modern incarnation of the prince, who exists outside of signification and culture, even if he can only be imagined though it, would be more willing to explore the conflict between modern and post-modern ontologies. I am, however, aware that this discussion is perhaps better suited to a more formal essay, and as such, I won’t drag you through it.

It might be that Saga Land was better suited to this format. The story wove together a number of genres, it was part travel memoir, part popular history prose, and part collection of folk narratives. Fidler and Gilason wove together the story of their travels through Iceland, Gilason’s family history, the history of Iceland and the family histories that make up the Icelandic sagas in a demonstration of the practice of saga making. The stories were layered one over the other, figures appeared, disappeared, and reappeared throughout, generations of Icelanders were revealed as both Fidler and Gilason narrated their experiences. This element, of the authors telling their own stories, perhaps made the form more poetic. Hearing Gilason speak the Icelandic names was like sirensong: it would often lull me into a soothed and distracted state.

I don’t know that I can listen to books that I need to pay attention to, and this means that listening to audiobooks is more of a pleasurable than a practical endeavour. Having said this the next book I have lined up is a Liane Moriarty one, and given she is basically a femme Cormac McCarthy (COME AT ME, I WILL DIE ON THIS HILL), I might put this “paying attention” schtick to work.

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