Dabbling in Audiobooks

I’ve been listening to some audiobooks lately. Nothing major – one a book I’ve already read and one a book I never had. And immediately, I have to bring up something that I’ve been stewing on: do I say I read the book?

Do I now say I’ve ‘read’ the book? I think I’m going to: It seems to me that when people ask ‘did you read the book’ what they mean is did I partake of the text, and in that case, having a screenreader or a braille translator wouldn’t make meaningful difference. The form does not relate to the medium necessarily. If I was talking in a Gerard Geanettey way I might consider the paratextuality of the audio versus the book. Does it change the character of the story?

Well, I mean, kind of?

See, there are things you can do in an audio medium that you can’t do in a book medium and what’s really interesting to me is the way that an audio book is a different thing to an audio play or a radio show. I listened to those growing up – recorded casette tapes of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and The Goon Show and Patch the Pirate Goes To Space. These were entirely audio shows that were meant to tell you some variety of a narrative and used all the audio assets they had available to them to do it. There were multiple actors playing roles in them, they used background music and the interplay of cross talk to change the story, they used ambient effects to give you a sense of space, sound effects, growing and increasing volume, all that stuff.

There’s an intention to the presentation of the form.

By comparison, the audiobook may use those things, but by default it seems the typical expectation is that an audiobook wants to be agnostic; as the words on the page make an ear of the eye, the audiobook seeks to turn the ear into the eye being an ear. Hand that sentence back to me in the morning if it annoys you. Point is that there seems to be a vision of the audiobook that wants to be neutral to the experience of the book. That is, you simply read the words on the page; you have a neutral tone of voice and you say the words in order.

This would be great for reading a manual but characters have their own manner of speaking and you naturally keep them separate when you read them. This presents a new problem because now you have a reader ‘Doing The Voices,’ as I understand is the expert way to refer to it (as consulting myself, circa age eight). That can present awkwardness, an awkwardness I’m personally struggling with for my book One Stone.

See, I want to read One Stone. I think it’d be neat to have it available as an audiobook.

In One Stone it’s a fantasy alt-history with dinosaurs and seers and bullshit alchemy but it’s also a place where there’s a character who’s meant to be from ‘a colonised-by-Britain version of Indian culture’ and everyone around them is meant to be able to tell, but the reader isn’t meant to work it out until later; see also a Sikh character, and a black character. There’s also a character who’s a trans woman, and the idea of ‘doing the voices’ for them makes me a little anxious.

(I’ll probably still do it, because I understand good faith is how it goes).

But that’s an example of how giving a voice to a book conveys information that isn’t meant to be obvious. I noticed this while I was going through Reaper Man, a Discworld book. Discworld books tend to play with the medium in some fun ways; particularly, there’s a range of footnotes that don’t break the flow of the text but sometimes can occupy a half of a page unto themselves. There’s also font jokes – sometimes a character speaks with a smaller range of text and that conveys being quiet. There are things known as Auditors that ‘speak’ without using quotation marks, which, read aloud, doesn’t seem unnatural at all, but read it creates this feeling of wrongness.

Oh, and Death, in the Discworld, sᴘᴇᴀᴋs ɪɴ sᴍᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀᴘs. All the time. And he’s one of the central characters in Reaper Man.

There’s also a wonderful bit in Reaper Man where the text builds up to fill the page, an impassioned plea is made and ends at exactly the end of the page, but then you turn the page and an entire blank page has just the response, right in the centre of the page, and that is basically impossible to do in this neutral voice, right?

Okay, so that means there’s things you can do in text that you can’t do in audio in the same way. I mean you can but it’s going to be complicated to do it.

That, okay, that though, that was me using a book I’m familiar with which I know does textual stuff I know I can’t find in the audio version of the book. What about a book I’m not familiar with? Well, I checked out Children of Time, which, first of all, yes, I enjoyed it and it’s cool. I have never looked at the book, the page, of Children of Time and that means I don’t know what it does with those presentations. And that means there may be a dimension to this book I don’t understand and never will be able to just from the audio version.

That aside, though, an unfamiliar book is interesting. Particularly, I found that a reading in an audiobook form is slower than reading. A lot slower. It’s passive – I can do it while I’m playing a videogame, I can do it while I’m sorting or organising numbers, or while I’m doing graphic design work. But it also meant that the book took about four days to go through. That’s surprising to me.

What also was challenging is that I don’t know if you do this, but I don’t actually process books perfectly. It’s true! It’s true, no, not even I, the default white male cis man, necessarily correctly read a book from word one to word done in a single arc without needing to double check things. I often need to flip back, make sure I know who’s saying what or why. In a book that jumps perspective between twelve spiders with the same name (it’s a great book) and four characters whose conversations are separated by centuries (again, such a good book), that can mean that I was settled in listening to how Portia was going to defy Portia’s will and live up to Portia’s legacy, only to be jerked back to a different world and trying to remember if Kern or Lane or Guyen or Karst is the dickhead who I was mad at a century ago. It’s deliberately disorienting (I really need to assure you that it’s a great book).

What I found I wanted was a TVTropes page.

Not a super detailed one – I don’t need it massively fleshed out. What I wanted was just a checklist so that when I jumped around I could push on a folder and see ‘oh, yes, Doctor Kern, that’s the person who did this and that,’ and keep track of the narrative, hook myself into the new thing faster. It’s fun, really, because that keeping up to speed is a thing that is harder when the book is being read at its own pace. Sure, I normally read faster, but I note that I read slower at times too – and Audiobooks don’t let me do that.

I can imagine this works really well for the sprawling epics, where you don’t need to care too much about any given scene because you’re mostly hanging around characters for many hours and the scenes that hold your memory will matter, and you can reconstruct the thread of the narrative later by investigating what confused you.

Nonetheless, it’s buck wild to think that at one point this month I thought ‘man, I wish TVTropes had dedicated space to talk about the characters in this interesting award-winning science fiction novel instead of using that space to talk about a Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes crossover fanfiction.’

Oh and yeah, I read these books. We use the word ‘read’ to mean ‘I partook of a book’ so eff it I’m going to just go with that.