About audio books

About audio books: a response to the Swedish newspaper series of opinion pieces regarding audio books and their impact on reading and the Swedish book industry at large

I am working in my studio and the ongoing debate on audio books and what they are doing with literature is something that has fired the neurons in a mind that is extravagantly and exuberantly at leisure after having recently brought a six-year project to its conclusion. I am writing as a writer on the cusp of her debut; I am writing as a naive newcomer to the Swedish literary scene, as an artist who is fascinated with the vicissitudes of the course of human expression, and most of all, I am writing as a fledgling who has spent her life listening, and is now learning how to speak.

Some writers have taken issue with audio books being branded as “literature”; they consider it objectionable to market the consumption of audio books as the new “reading”. I think that whether or not marketing-language has ascribed the right verb to the audio book experience is something that the consumer might want to consider with discernment. More specifically, the consumer might want to exercise a particular type of discernment that is meticulous and rigorous in equal parts because the substance that the verb contains in its humble form certainly warrants attention, and perhaps even a sense of regard after having uncovered its potency.

It may be that audio book companies have employed the word “reading” because of the convenience, efficiency and economy that a well-established verb so amply provides its context. However, the sheer force and influence of the verb lie in its downright primal bond to the most potent of memories – that of the listen-reading that one did as a child when one’s parents read a storybook aloud at bedtime. By saying that one “reads” an audio book, the audio book business has essentially transformed the cord of your earphones into the nourishing lifeline that once carried the narratives that your mother told you as you lay in the cradle of her body, listen-reading to what she was saying. This same cord, powered by current that runs within the verb “reading”, spans the length of the human lifetime: from conjuring the voice of your mother in your infancy, it simultaneously evokes the listen-reading that one does in times of sickness as well as old age when the vulnerability of one’s weakening eyesight finds its consolation and bliss in the voice of one’s partner or friend reading a story aloud.

By touting audio book consumption as reading, there is a primal sense of comfort that is evoked in the consumer; and more so, the act of listening to an audio book brings about a veritable animal sense of emotional belonging in the listen-reader. There is power in the act of listen-reading. And therein lies a latency, an imperative, and a drive towards the development of the literary tide of our age.

The technological innovation that business compels and drives forth contributes to this very development of literary history. The onus is on the audio book business to recognise that the audio book phenomenon is fundamentally a training of the mind.

It would behoove the audio book business to entrust writers with a freer hand in the creation of audio book material in order to raise the bar in listening comprehension. I reiterate that this is precisely what this audio book phenomenon is about: it is a training of the mind so as to be able to read through one’s auditory faculties. To be able to perceive, comprehend, interpret, observe, study and appreciate a piece of literature with one’s ears just as adeptly as one does with one’s eyes in contact with the printed page. Listen-reading is a new skill in this sense of the word. Let us now dispense of the hyphen in this new verb.

Like any other skill, learning how to listenread an audio book of high literary quality is a technique that has a learning curve. It is crucial that consumers show themselves compassion and patience through the initial phase of listenreading a complex audio book. While the learning process is bound to come with frustration and difficulty, it would also surely bountifully reward a listenreader who is attentive, industrious and passionate about acquiring this new skill.

Listenreading is a body-centred, body-anchored experience. The onus is on technology to make the audio book experience more ergonomic. Don’t put pressure on writers to dumb down their narratives and simplify their stories. Instead, ask of technology to provide the solutions needed in order to support storytelling in all its unabashed complexity in the audio book medium. Invest in the research and development of technology. Invest in the advancement of technological solutions because brave innovation, body-sensitive innovation, literature-sensitive innovation is necessary to make the audio book experience ergonomic enough to allow for more complex and demanding literature to be partaken of in the audio format without compromising the work’s integrity nor the listenreader’s comprehension, appreciation and relish.

As a green-as-heck writer, as a newcomer to the Swedish literary scene, I want to feel on a deep and fundamental level, the vastness of the arena that is literature. I want to believe that this age-old arena is vast, dynamic and open enough to accommodate a myriad media and a blossoming spectrum of modes of articulation and communication. As a reader myself, I want to savour literature with the flames of a hunger kindled by human expression regardless of the medium it might present itself in. And as an artist coming to her own, I want to live and work in an arena in which both emerging and established forms of literature can burn with a light that does not cause the other to be extinguished.

Maxine Victor

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