Like most brilliant things, audiobooks or talking books were born out of frustration. Thomas Edison recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb on his prototype made of tinfoil around a grooved cylinder in 1877. But it was arguably 20 years after, when an exasperated Captain Ian Fraser exclaimed “If books could only talk!”, that the pursuit for a proper recording of an entire book was jumpstarted.
Fraser was among thousands of soldiers who lost their sight from injuries on the battlefields of the First World War. He wanted to keep enjoying his beloved books but like many of his blind comrades, he was struggling to learn braille. While listening to a gramophone, Fraser realised that he can indeed make books “talk”. If music can be recorded, why not a person reading a book?
In 1918, he explored this idea while working with the Royal Institute of the Blind (RNIB). His team experimented with several machines for years until finally in 1935, they were able to deliver the first talking books to the public: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of John Ackroyd and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. RNIB would further release 55 audiobooks in two years. Instantly, they changed the lives of blind veterans and civilians who described them as “wonderful blessings” and “a true luxury”.
Today, a century after a blind soldier saw the need for them, audiobooks have risen meteorically in popularity. In fact, audiobooks are currently the fastest growing segment of the digital publishing industry. A study conducted by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the most comprehensive research on audiobooks so far, showed that audiobooks sales have been consistently leaping. In 2017, total sales rose by 22.7%. In the United States alone, over $2.5 billion dollar worth of audiobooks were sold.
Publishers like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House have declared that it is actually the booming sales of audiobooks that has kept their digital units profitable since eBook sales are flatlining. Interestingly, the APA study also revealed that 48% of audiobook fans are under the age of 35 and they listen to an average of 15 books annually.
But why exactly are audiobooks so loved? Here are a few of many reasons.
Audiobooks are portable and accessible
They now come in convenient forms like CDs, Playaways and eAudiobooks - a far cry from the bulky phonograph records and squeaky cassette tapes of old. Playaways are small media players into which talking books are preloaded. eAudiobooks are downloadable talking books that can be stored in devices such as smartphones, tables, IPads, and laptops. Indeed, these days, bringing Tolstoy’s War and Peace to grapple with on your long haul flight won’t challenge your baggage space. Talking books are also easy to obtain. Websites dedicated to audiobooks for purchase or rent have sprouted like Audible and Playster, accessible anytime, anywhere.
Audiobooks save time
Reading does require investment of time and full attention but with audiobooks, it is possible to multitask. Now, you can revisit Orwell’s compact powerhouse Animal Farm in just one of your morning runs or check out if the fuss about Atwood's The Testament is worth it while driving onto a weekend getaway. That one can enjoy a book while doing other things is actually the number one reason why people choose audiobooks according to the APA survey with 60% of respondents saying they listen to audiobooks while doing housework, driving, and exercising. As Audible’s catchphrase says, audiobooks allow you to “fit more books into your life.”
Audiobooks enrich the reading experience
When we were kids, we enjoyed listening to stories.Every inflection in our parent or teacher’s voice makes characters come alive and plots more vivid and absorbing. It is the same with listening to audiobooks. A good narrator gives a story a personality making it more immersive. A UCL research (University College London) revealed that people listening to an audio narrative of an emotionally charged scene registered a higher rate of heartbeat and body temperature than those looking at its visual counterpart. It means that being read to results to greater cognitive and emotional processing. Hence, contrary to common notion, listening to audiobooks does not dilute or cheapen the reading experience but rather enhance and adds another dimension to it. True enough - Shakespeare’s sarcasm isn’t as piercing as when its spoken.
Audiobooks benefit the visually impaired
This, after all, is the reason why they were created. Although braille has been a reliable reading tool for the blind, many have difficulty learning it especially those who have lost their sight later in life. But with audiobooks, they can “read” by merely listening. This ease of use also suits the elderly with weakened eyesight and motor skills as well as sighted readers whose eyes are quickly strained by prolonged reading of texts on pages or screens. Furthermore, audiobook editions of books are produced faster than braille versions making the wait for popular books shorter for blind people. Since audiobook production require less, they are also cheaper than braille books.
Audiobooks aid in learning
Audiobooks can help learning-disabled students, struggling readers, and second-language learners. When students listen to audiobooks, they are exposed to many words therefore broadening their vocabularies. Since learners are relieved from the pressure of decoding, a rigorous process to some, they can focus on absorbing the meaning of the text. This results in better understanding and retention of information that eventually improve their confidence to take on reading tasks. Studies also show that instead of discouraging children from reading, the pleasure of listening to audio stories enlivened by expert storytellers instead developed in them a love for books and for learning.
No doubt, audiobooks are awesome. Fortunately, they are often available in libraries and in ours, we've got plenty. We have them in CD, MP3CD, Playaway, and eAudiobook formats. Preloaded editions can be rented for a month for just $3 per set and free for those in concession. eAudiobooks are free to download and borrow up to a month from Overdrive/Libby, BorrowBox, and uLibrary.
So, why not check out an audiobook now or encourage someone you know who will enjoy it to try one. We have heaps in our collections for you to choose from. Here are some of the most popular in various genres. Take your pick!