I used to be one of those people who cocked a judgmental eyebrow at 'readers' of audiobooks. Any book other than the dead-tree edition was for amateurs, as far as I was concerned.
Sure, I recognised the space-saving benefits of the e-book, having lugged a backpack filled with more novels than clothes (or so it felt) on more than one overseas trip. So I respect the common sense of the virtual book when it comes to travelling light, not to mention the environmental merit of renouncing paper books for the digital variety.
Still, I've never been a fan.
I was one of those insufferable wankers who'd wax on about the scent of 'real' books. And I wasn't choosy; it could be the freshly pulped smell of bricks-and-mortar book stores, or the musty odour of second-hand book stores and university libraries.
I also loved the crisp feel of the pages and the fun little trappings like bookmarks and bookplates (even if, as a child, I did think 'ex libris' had something to do with the zodiac). I would lovingly flatten out the curled covers of second-hand books that came into my care and restore them with clear contact. I also delighted in the way a 2B pencil (an HB being far too brutal) impressed itself oh-so-gently upon the book's margins where I wrote my delicately incisive notes.
Then I had children. And they may as well have been 'Children of the Corn' as far as my freedom to read books was concerned. Through the years of sleep deprivation, all I could bring myself to do of an evening was to stare blear-eyed at the latest reality-TV cooking show, a string of drool quivering from my bottom lip.
The languishing piles of books 'to be read' on my bedside table grew into towers, or more pragmatically, very tall drink coasters. After happily tripping through a Victorian novel a week, all I could manage was one chapter of airport fiction every couple of months -- and only then after my youngest child had turned three.
Yet, how passionately I mourned the life of mind I had lived through books; the sustained immersion in another person's creative world. I grieved this death because I was convinced that quiet time with the printed page was the only form true reading could take.
Audiobooks might be a whole lot more accessible, especially given the ceaseless obligations of parenting, but -- much like that other peculiar auditory pastime, guided meditation -- I'd decided it might be okay for other people, if you're into that sort of thing, but it wasn't for me.
Why, oh why, did it take me so long? I've gone from barely scraping through two to three novels a year, to enjoying three to four a month.
It's funny, because I'd never been a Luddite about anything else. I'd been an early adopter of almost every technological advance, from the video recorder (yes, I am that old), to online banking, to email, to blogging, to social media. I even curated podcast playlists for long car trips. Maybe it was because I'd been a student of literature, with its attention to, quite literally, the words on the page, but this anarchic clinging to paper-based technology was both bloody-minded and impractical.
When exactly was I going to have the time to caress these lofty tomes again? To sniff their woody pages? It was a nostalgic indulgence that would be immortalised evermore in the years before parenting ate up all my free time.
A few months ago I heard the novelist, essayist and journalist Robert Dessaix speak at the Melbourne Writers' Festival on the subject of leisure. What the hell is leisure? Forget a quiet Sunday morning doing the crossword. For us, taking a crap without a four year old standing directly in front of you asking the bleeding obvious, to wit, "Mummy, are you doing a poo?", is about as much leisure as any parent can hope for.
"Do what gives you pleasure," exhorts Dessaix. "Be idle." I snort derisively at this. Not only are you always doing something as a parent, you are usually doing several somethings at the same time. You drive the car, adjust the temperature by the minutest increments for your three-little-bears offspring ("too hot!", "too cold!"), adjudicate back-seat squabbles, pass out food/drink bottles AND change lanes all at the same time. You can forget that fantasy of ever doing a single thing on its own again. Like reading.
So I decided it was time to take the plunge; to cross over to the grubby, digital dark side and embrace the audiobook. And it has been a revelation. Why oh why did it take me so long? I've gone from barely scraping through two to three novels a year to enjoying three or four a month. All those intellectually dead times that accompany parental domesticity -- sweeping, vacuuming, clothes-pegging, toy-corralling, bath-running, child-herding, shopping, cooking, driving to and fro -- have become opportunities to read. To reignite my formerly buzzing synapses and thereby keep me sane.
A puritanical reader (or crunchy parent) would probably decry my not giving either the book or the children (not to mention the driving) 100 percent of my attention. This messy multi-tasking also flies in the face of the seeming 'right-minded' shift towards the slow versus the fast. Mindfulness. Being in the moment. Yeah, right. Such retro-luxuries are the leisurely preserves of those who don't care for small children.
I read somewhere that parenthood has two parts: the relationship and the work. The relationship part is wonderful; the work part sucks. It's mundane, frequently stressful, often soul-destroying, brain-numbing and infuriating (think: picking strands of Spaghetti Bolognese flung by a bratty four year old out of shag carpet with your fingers). Audiobooks help make the grunt work bearable so that you can better enjoy the wonderful relationship stuff.
Consider it a life hack for the child-weary.
Here are some tips for getting some life-changing audiobook magic in your life:
- Join the library. Your local library will have one or more services where you can download audiobooks for free, as well as place holds on books you are waiting to borrow.
- Join another library. You might be eligible to join the library near work as well as one near home. Even though libraries often use the same audiobook service, the book selection will vary. The more libraries you can join, the broader the variety of titles available to you.
- Join a monthly subscription service like Audible. You get only one title per month for your $14.95, but being a member means you can purchase additional titles for only $14.95, which is far cheaper than full price. They also offer the broadest selection.
- Check out the free options online for audiobooks of classic novels, usually those out of copyright.
- Keep earphones everywhere -- on your bedside table, in your handbag, in your glove compartment -- so you're always equipped to read/listen.
- Activate Bluetooth in your car and pair it to the device where your audiobooks are stored (i.e., your smart phone) -- it will automatically play your book at the point where you left off.
- Direct the speakers to the front right, closest to the driver so you don't annoy the kids.
- Keep the volume way down when listening to authors like Christos Tsiolkas, unless you want to be explaining some pretty naughty words and adult concepts to your kids.
Enjoy your return to reading.