A Book In My Ear: Audiobooks, the Writer’s Take

My nineteen-year-old son always has his face in his phone. Drives me nuts, and I confess that when he’s around I nag him about it.

“Focus on what you’re doing,” I say.

“But I’m just rinsing off this dish to put it in the dishwasher,” says he. (Okay, at least he’s following House Rule #1–Zero dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.)

“The phone is rewiring your brain. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. I think you’re addicted.”

“It’s just a plate, and I’m putting it in the dishwasher! You know,” he says, after taking care of the plate. “You kind of nag me sometimes.” He puts one arm around my neck–coincidentally it’s the arm with the phone on the end of it. “What’s up with that?”

Yes, I do nag him. But I’m also a hypocrite of enormous proportions. We’re a lot alike, he and I. We both have attention issues–as in, we are both very easily distracted and desire almost constant mental stimulation. I say “desire” because I’ve spent many years working to get a handle on my distraction habit–a habit that can be both devastating and helpful to a writer.

My name is Laura, and my phone is near me at all times. Not necessarily because I want my family to be able to reach me 24/7, though that’s important, but because my AirPods might lose the audio signal of the book I’m listening to. I listen to 5-6 audiobooks a week, with a few podcasts in between.

In fact, I listened to the entire 6+ hours of the excellent true crime podcast, Bear Brook, on Monday, after talking about it with my editor around 2:00 p.m. And Monday was a pretty busy day for me.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking and have a book in my ear, my husband will come in and talk to me as he has a snack or peruses his own phone. I’ll turn a part of my attention to him and let the narrator’s voice drop into the background. Husband doesn’t necessarily know if I have a book or podcast going on, or if the pod is just there for phone convenience. If he appears to want to have a conversation, I’ll take the pod out of my ear and slip it in my pocket.  I’ve started to feel a bit icky about this scenario. I would almost always prefer to talk to him.

Last November–and I can’t believe it was so long ago–I posted about my attraction to audiobooks as a reader. The comments on that post are amazing and truly informative. I love reading about other folks’ reading habits. A rereading of that post also woke me up to the fact that I’ve since almost doubled my audio consumption. I knew it was getting out of hand, but seriously…

Audiobook overconsumption is, I’m afraid, messing with my writing. There. I’ve said it. (Took me about 500 words, but I’m fond of big intros outside of my fiction. Sorry.)

As with watching television, audiobook listening is primarily a passive experience that can happen while the listener does other things. Yet, surely there are people who listen to books and do absolutely nothing else while they’re doing it, giving the book one hundred percent of their attention. Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, writes about listening to music that way. She’s a huge proponent of doing one thing at a time. She protests that she would be very offended if someone came to one of her dance performances and read a book, so she wouldn’t read a book while listening to Beethoven. Which leads me to wonder if I would be offended if someone vacuumed or changed tires or gardened while listening to one of my books. Or if they read a paper copy or ebook while keeping an eye on a televised football game as my dad often does. My answer is an emphatic no, of course not.

For the two and a half decades before I started writing, books were entertainment and solace for me. I paid attention when I read because I was interested in the stories. When I started writing, I learned to actively read like a writer. Writers read for language, grammar, story shape, character development, story arcs, plot elements, point-of-view. We read to learn how to do it–it’s as simple as that. Some of us try modeling our work on more skilled writers (a marvelous exercise to step into another writer’s shoes). After a while, the reading-like-a-writer habit can get frustrating for writers at every level. Sometimes you just don’t want to know about the puppeteer behind the curtain, you just want to know what happens next.

I find it difficult to track the writer’s journey in an audiobook. There are occasionally those moments when I think, “I see what she did there.” While I tend to recall plot details and my mental images of the characters in books I listen to, I retain little else besides the conclusion that I liked them or didn’t.

I have a similar problem with ebooks, oddly enough. As with audiobooks, I have a very hard time returning to a word or a scene I want to go over again. I can’t tell you the number of bookmarks I put into ebooks, and the audiobook screenshots I have in my phone so I can bookmark scenes that way. With a paper book, I usually remember where something I want to find appeared on its page, left or right, top or bottom, or middle. Also I can usually narrow it down to a half dozen pages with less than a minute of searching.

There’s something so concrete about watching a story unfold on the page and also following it in one’s mind. I feel like I can almost reach out and hold it. I remember very early on that my husband said of my short stories that they looked like short stories, but that they had little story in them. Yes, I’d read a ton of books, but I hadn’t yet read much as a writer. Still, shape is important, especially when you’re starting out.

Over the past year, most of the ebooks I’ve read have been friends’ or students’ manuscripts, or books to blurb. I’ve read some hardcovers and a couple of regretful paperback freebies I picked up at a conference. But I can say with confidence that the novels and books I’ve listened to outnumber the print/ebooks at least ten to one. That number feels pretty shocking.

I feel rather like a student who has been watching YouTube videos while sitting in a classroom as the teacher lectures. Ouch. That’s no way to learn. Content is important.

That said, I love all versions of books. Sometimes I think it’s not quite fair to the book I’m listening to if I’ve glossed over bits of it. I’ve missed something, and I hate missing out, especially on a story.

Today I ran across this interesting piece, 8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read (a Real) Book. It’s an eclectic list, focusing mainly on books themselves in place of other forms of entertainment.  But a lot of it make sense. I’m not surprised that turning pages helps one’s recall, and reading is like a workout for the brain. I’m much more likely to immediately look up a word when I’m reading, rather than when listening to a book.

Right now I have three books going: I’ve listened to the Twyla Tharp book, and have read the first fifty pages of the softcover version. The second is a ginormous hardcover, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White. The third is, yes, an audiobook. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. Perhaps I should be reading the Heinlein on paper, and listening to Lethal White. Heinlein’s characters are wonderful, but Galbraith’s are deeper, especially given that they are series characters. But I’m sixty-five on the waitlist for Lethal White at Overdrive. And it costs a small fortune to buy on audio.

It feels good to sit down at the computer with some hands-on, eyes-on reading backing me up again.

What about you? Do you experience a difference in your writing if your reading habits change?

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