As an independent publisher, I am a believer of print, and I am not into ebooks. So my experience of listening to audio books has mostly been as a freeloader (discounting for the audio cassettes that appeared in 1990s, like Kaifi Azmi’s Kaifiyat and Javed Akhtar’s Tarkash; those I paid for).
I came to audio books via the internet, through the free download sites, before discovering dedicated sites like Librivox.org or Open Culture. It started with listening to poetry read by the author and then I focused on books that I could not find in India or books that were beyond my reach to purchase. There was some experimentation as well. I downloaded and listened to Spanish for Dummies for one whole month; not sure it helped.
Sure, it has its advantages, for example, you can listen to it on the go, but I am not a convert yet. I believe the retention level is far too low in audio books. When they announced a TV series on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I wanted to read the book first. I didn’t have it, but soon found an audio book. It’s read by Gaiman himself and he has a soothing voice. I got the gist of the narrative, but it did not give me the same pleasure as reading other Gaiman books. A few months later, I acquired the book and reading the physical book was a different experience altogether. The aesthetic pleasure of holding a book, looking at the lines, words, is something else.
Like all technology, audio books are no-fuss, efficient alternative. It gets the job done. It doesn’t concern itself with individual experiences. It’s for mass consumption, to disseminate information. So if you are listening to an audio book for information, it’s a great invention. But I don’t think it’s a viable alternative to reading a physical book.
However, I have discovered that audio books are a great way to revisit your favourite works. I am a die-hard fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. So when his new Book of Dust came out last year, I found an excerpt of the audio book on YouTube. The reading could hardly hold my interest. Then I searched for the His Dark Materials; they were there, and I listened to them, the whole 15 hours of it with renewed vigour. Because I knew the books; it was like visiting an old friend.
Today, I find my audio books on YouTube, which are mostly from Audible, therefore, the production quality, voices are pitch-perfect. For random books, Librivox.org is the best. Here, the files are in public domain, therefore free. But the quality is often a suspect, as the books are read by enthusiasts, not professionals. However, for beginners, this is a great place to explore.
PS: I wrote this while listening to George RR Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire, on YouTube, because I cannot afford to buy the book yet.
(This Delhi-based writer runs an independent publishing venture called Red River)