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.
Stevenson’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?