Audiobooks Are Not Just a Life Hack

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls.

Thirty-eight year old Charlie Lewis is about to be married, but he can’t stop thinking about the past, and the events of one particular summer. He was sixteen years old then, his life not at all glamorous, thinking about the future with dread. But then, Fran Fisher bursts into his life and, despite himself, Charlie begins to hope. In order to spend time with Fran, Charlie must—gulp—join a play. Romeo and Juliet, to be exact, and he spends the summer facing his fears and becoming a different person thanks to Fran and his fellow theater troupe.

Most people need a moment to wrap their minds around the fact that I work in books and can’t read print.

“So what happens when you can’t find the audiobook edition of a book?” they ask.

Good question.

“The truth is, I usually just can’t read it.”

Like many other disabled book lovers, print books aren’t accessible for me. My particular situation is a combination of both pain and cognitive issues from migraines, causing me to struggle with reading anything longer than a brief text message. So, as you can imagine, working in books requires an intense amount of tenacity, stubbornness, and creativity. But even after using audiobooks for my professional work for several years now, I am constantly finding myself trying to problem solve and work around my disability.

Recently, I finished Silas House’s Appalachian Trilogy, which was just reissued by Blair publishing with a new forward for each book in the series. I audibly squealed when I opened the package and saw these books with their gorgeous new covers. But when I pulled up the audiobook editions on my phone, I realized they hadn’t been updated since they were first recorded in the early 2000s. This predicament brings me back to the question, “What do I do when I can’t read the print?”

In this case, I asked my spouse to read the forwards to me, which are, thankfully, only a few pages each. In the past, friends have recorded short stories or essays for me and sent me the audio. At other times co-workers have read and summarized novels for me. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself scheduled to interview an author for a podcast, but there is no audiobook of their book available. One time, I listened to my Kindle read an entire novel to me, and I couldn’t help but cringe at its robotic voice eviscerating the novel’s prose. When I’m researching for a piece I’m writing or a podcast episode I’m recording, Apple’s VoiceOver technology is usually good enough to read articles to me.

But all of these solutions are like putting duct tape over a broken window. Yes, technically it works—but not very well. So much of our understanding of language is tied to the rhythm and cadence of speech, like the up tone at the end of questions or the snap of a sarcastic comment.

When I listen to AI voices read text to me, it sucks the life out of the story, stripping the prose of its emotion and intensity. This is why audiobooks matter so much, not because they are a convenient way to multitask and get more reading in, but because they allow thousands of people to experience stories via audio in the most brilliant and vibrant of ways.

More often than not, I hear people make comments about how or why people choose to listen to audiobooks. And for non-disabled people, these are very valid conversations and help them work out what works best for their book-loving life. But always approaching audiobooks as a luxury or a life hack for personal enrichment centers non-disabled listeners and prioritizes the people who choose to listen to audiobooks, not the people who have to.

How audiobooks are made is a complex process involving the tangled web of who owns what rights and whether those rights have been sold, etc. But in my work life as a disabled person, that tangled web determines whether or not I have access to books and can do my job. It’s past time we transitioned from viewing audiobooks as a matter of luxury to a matter of accessibility.