Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I tried to listen to at least two hours of podcasts a day. They're a great way to take advantage of any downtime, be it on a commute or tidying up the house. But like people across the country, I’m finding the news about the pandemic—which has dominated media cycles (and not without good reason)—stressful and at times, overwhelming. To be honest, I can’t listen to another podcast about how many times I should wash the mail before opening it or how the economy will change in the coming months. I’ve found myself standing around in silence when I might have been listening to a podcast—that is, until I discovered audiobooks.
I had always been resistant to the idea of listening to books. It felt like cheating in a way—people have read good old fashioned printed books for millenia. Prompted by David Perell's wonderful podcast episode with Robert Cottrell, I opened up Audible and started “The Man Who Played With Fire,” a novel about the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. It took some time to adjust to the format—having someone read to you requires you to think about what you’re reading in a different way. I was impressed by how easy it was to get into that audiobook, so I picked up an audio version of Richard Lattimore’s translation of “The Iliad” (I was reading a hard copy of it) and listened to the audio version when I found myself with some spare time. It didn’t feel like cheating; in fact, it felt like the opposite. Homer’s works were originally meant to be orated, not read, and I picked up on elements, especially stylistic ones, that I might have missed reading the hard copy.
Audiobooks introduce an intermediary between the author and reader, for better or worse. Listening to Charlton Griffin read “The Iliad” was a wonderful experience that added to the narrative. Ulf Bjorklund’s reading of “The Man Who Played With Fire,” however, felt strained, monotone, and boring at times. It is important to find a narrator to whom you can listen for extended periods of time—most audiobook apps let you listen to a sample to see if the reader’s style is for you.
Listening to audiobooks is easier to get started than you might think. The dominant player in the market is Audible, and its app is well designed and easy to use. The books, however, can be somewhat expensive, and the app has a complicated “credit” system that encourages users to sign up for a monthly subscription, which I found infinitely frustrating. I must have signed up at some point and forgotten, as I logged in to find I had a number of credits I didn’t know existed in my account. The better option by far is Libby, an app that allows you to “check out” audio (and e-books) from your local library. This presents its own set of challenges—you may need to place a hold on a book if too many people are already listening to the copy—but I found it to be a pretty efficient process. If, like me, you can’t remember your library card details, you can quickly sign up for an e-card with your borough’s library, and they will immediately e-mail you login details allowing you to sign into Libby.
In a time when day-to-day media cycles feel overwhelming and a lot of the audio content we listen to has become coronavirus-ified, audiobooks let us turn to books that are timeless, standing in for podcasts and allowing us to read more in the process. I’ve found that audiobooks haven’t replaced my normal reading—they’ve supplemented it. I’ve been impressed by how enjoyable the process is, and I plan to continue to listen to them, even after this pandemic is over.