“I wish Juliet Stevenson Would Read Supreme Court Decisions To Me”

So Mr. A.M.B. said, having just finished listening to the audiobook version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.* It’s narrated by Juliet Stevenson, whom many of us know as Mrs. Elton from the 1996 movie version of Emma or as Keira Knightley’s mother from Bend It Like Beckham.

Screenshot of Jane Eyre audiobookStevenson’s expressive and often soothing British voice couldn’t possibly mitigate the pain I felt while reading the U.S. Supreme Court opinions this term, but my husband has a point. Her voice is phenomenal.

I only know of it from her films. She has narrated many of my favorite novels, including Jane Eyre, Persuasion, and North and South, but I’ve only experienced these books on an e-reader or on paper.** I’ve never listened to an audiobook, except for snippets of the audiobooks that help my three little night-owls fall asleep (A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh read by Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer, Stephen Fry, and others is particularly wonderful).

According to the Pew Research Institute’s Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013, 14% of surveyed adults listened to at least one audiobook last year. The survey revealed that “adults with higher levels of education are more likely to have read audiobooks than those who did not attend college” and that audiobook listeners have the most diverse reading habits in terms of consuming books in a variety of formats (audio, e-book, and print).

So why am I not one of these “diverse” consumers of literary material?

There are at least three reasons: (1) I am too impatient to listen to an audiobook; (2) I hate to drive; and (3) I absorb information better in print (whether on an e-reader or on paper).

As Mr. A.M.B. mentioned in his review earlier this week of Jane Eyre, the unabridged Stevenson narration is close to 20 hours long! It’s a long book, but it wouldn’t take me anywhere near that many hours to read it. Without a long car trip during which I can’t read my Kindle—and really, I don’t do that much driving—I can’t justify spending that much time on a single novel (as much as Jane Eyre may deserve an endless amount of time focused on it!).

Plus, I’m not a good listener, at least when I have to listen to one type of content for any extended period of time. I am easily distracted, and I don’t retain the information. Lectures in college and law school were pointless for me — it was in one ear and out the other — unless I took copious notes by hand.

So, audiobooks aren’t a good choice for me. Unlike some people who prefer to read the words on the page, though, I don’t think that listening is an inherently inferior way to consume literature. As a Forbes article from 2011 pointed out, there’s no clear scientific evidence that audiobooks are necessarily worse for comprehension or retention. Audiobooks might give people an opportunity to listen when they can’t read (like when they’re driving a car), and they may be ideal for readers who aren’t really in the mindset to read.

That supports what Mr. A.M.B. said: he’d never listened to an audiobook until he’d had a week during which he spent over a dozen hours either driving a car or crammed on an airplane (feeling “too tired and uncomfortable to read, but not tired or comfortable enough to sleep”), creating a perfect opportunity to listen to Juliet Stevenson’s rendition of Jane Eyre. The audiobook made Mr. A.M.B.’s car and plane rides far more tolerable and introduced him to a classic work of fiction.

Who cares what the format is as long as it encourages people to enjoy literature?

*He listened to the audiobook and also read parts of the e-book version of Jane Eyre.

**For more from this Blog on Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, see (1) Is Persuasion Better with Age?; (2) Jane Austen Teaches Science, (3) North and South or Margaret Hale: How Much Control Should Authors Have?


  1. I began listening to audio books three or four years ago, in part because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and also to improve my audio comprehension. I wish I could say I’ve made a lot of progress, but truth be told I listen to so few audio books. I really do prefer reading words on a page than being read to. Like you, I absorb information better when I am reading it–and I was one of those students who had to take lots of notes in in class. My mind wanders so easily, and so if I do listen to a book, it better be one that holds my attention well. I also find it’s challenging for me to find time to actually listen to an audio book. Maybe if my daughter was older . . .

    I do enjoy them when I can get into them though. It’s just not often and I doubt will replace my reading of print or e-books any time soon.

    1. It sounds like lots of us have similar issues with listening comprehension. I’d like to try listening to audiobooks–and I’ll probably choose one narrated by Juliet Stevenson–but I doubt it will ever be my primary way of consuming literature.

  2. Can totally relate to this dilemma – I too can be enchanted by a good voice, but after a few minutes of audio my mind has drifted and I have no idea what has been said. (Though I often wonder for me if it is a matter of being an under-developed/neglected sense. But who has time to be improving everything all the time – exhausting ;D!) Sounds like her narration is quite beautiful and would be an excellent place to start, though.

  3. It seems that research is showing that people who read appreciate reading of all kinds – paper books, e-readers, and audiobooks. I think we are much less divided than the media would have us believe.

    Audiobooks don’t usually work for me right now. I don’t have a commute and I usually have little ears around the house. I find that they work when I do things like cleaning but I can’t listen to a book while doing something else that needs brain power!

    1. My husband and I have talked about listening to an aubiobook on the way to work (we drive in together), but it’s usually the only time we’re able to talk to each other without little ears around! My youngest is now at the stage of repeating EVERYTHING she hears us say to EVERYONE she meets. Fun.

  4. I am very fond of audio books. Not the price, but the convenience of use. Being dyslexic, reading is trying for me at times of stress, being tired or too much work. It is great to have them in the garden, keeping hands busy while enjoying the book. Like your husband, they are handy on a plane too. I get car/plane sick even reading two words on a page, so on a long ride they are a lifesaver. I do agree, you will absorb the words better by reading them, but for me this form of media is great.

    1. I think my husband would agree with you. I’m wondering if he’ll start listening to more audiobooks now. It’s definitely pricey, though!

  5. Never tried an audiobook. I considered them for listening to during marathon training but they were expensive then. I’m not sure if that’s changed. AMB, all the narrators you mention are Brits. I presume an American narrator would generally be used for an American-authored book?

    1. Well, I suppose the issue is that a somewhat high percentage of my family’s reading material comes from the British Isles. I’m sure there are many wonderful American narrators, but I don’t have a problem with having a British actor read American-authored novels or even court opinions! My husband had just finished Jane Eyre, and so Stevenson is the name my husband happened to mention when we were discussing the horrors the U.S. Supreme Court inflicted on the people this term.

  6. I don’t listen to audio books either, and for the reason you mention: I don’t absorb the material nearly as well as if I read it. And when I’m driving, my mind is mostly on the road and other vehicles, not listening to someone read a book.

    However, if I could get an audio book of The Hobbit read by someone with an English accent, I might reconsider. 🙂 Doesn’t everything sound better with an English accent?

    1. “Doesn’t everything sound better with an English accent?”
      There are certainly many people who think so! I don’t have any qualms about having U.S. court opinions read by British actors, though I’m sure there are many North Americans who would do a fine job with the opinions (which are just so dreadful to read on paper).

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