As a child, I squeezed extra hours of reading from each day by switching on the tape deck after lights out. I didn’t like surrendering my active mind to sleep, but I could let unconsciousness catch me unawares. Decades later, driven to desperation by insomnia, I unearthed old cassette tapes from my childhood bedroom and discovered that their comforts still worked on me. So I did the only logical thing and subscribed to Audible, the Amazon subsidiary with a near-monopoly on digital audiobooks, and before long I was catching up on contemporary fiction while I swiffered my floors every Sunday, speeding through classics while my dog decided where to pee. It’s a little embarrassing to admit how much this habit has come to mean to me. I’m sleeping better, but it’s not only that. The precise elocution of the practiced actor-narrators is often the only human speech I hear all day. I was lonelier than I realized before it entered my routine.
If I’d become a journalist in another era, before Facebook and Google came along to claim around 70 percent of the digital advertising that once supported my industry, I might have held a full-time job and spent my days surrounded by people. (I’ve been lucky enough to experience this a couple of times, at publications that abruptly imploded; since then, I’ve rationalized permalancing as a comparatively stable alternative.) It’s simplistic but not entirely inaccurate to say that Audible’s parent, Amazon, is to book publishing what Facebook and Google are to magazines: the troll under the bridge whose idea of a toll is to devour consumers and competitors whole. Amazon already accounts for around half of all print book sales and more than 80 percent of ebook sales, and has recently thrown its weight into publishing its own books and giving them top billing in its online marketplace, eating ever deeper into traditional publishers’ profits. “They aren’t gaming the system,” a literary agent told the Wall Street Journal this winter. “They own the system.”
Audible is an arm of this effort. Audiobooks are the fastest growing part of publishing, “a tiny bright spot” for the industry, according to Bloomberg : revenue from downloads has roughly tripled in the last five years and reached $2.5 billion in 2017. But Amazon dominates the audiobook market, mostly through Audible. As other publishers wake up to the importance of audio, Audible continues “aggressively courting authors to create exclusive works for them,” as the New York Times reported in June. (Most buzzily, it tempted the writer Michael Lewis to leave his post as a feature writer at Vanity Fair and turn his reporting into “Audible Originals” instead.) As Amazon hogs this new source of sunlight, the publishers struggling in its shade cut costs, including propping themselves up on “full-time freelance” labor, to borrow a misnomer from a recent debate concerning Vanity Fair’s parent company, Condé Nast. Keeping company with my Audible app over lunch, I’ve come to see it as the buddy our tech overlords have granted me in the isolation that they help to impose.
The allure of the audiobook is that you can read it anywhere, at any time. In the car, en route to your adjunct teaching gig. In the pharmacy, waiting to see if your high deductible health plan will cover your prescription. On the train to get coffee with a well-meaning writer twenty years your senior who will advise you to “climb the ladder” like she did. By listening, you partially reclaim the lost hours, preserving some ghost of an alternate universe where you don’t have to do what you’re doing, and you’re on the couch reading the old-fashioned way instead.
Keeping company with my Audible app over lunch, I’ve come to see it as the buddy our tech overlords have granted me in the isolation that they help to impose.
At the dawn of audio technology in the late nineteenth century, the idea of an invention that would allow nonstop reading inspired a flurry of utopian reveries, as literary scholar Matthew Rubery writes in his detailed history The Untold Story of the Talking Book. Though the early phonograph could play recordings of only a few minutes, from the moment it appeared, bibliophiles began dreaming of media similar to today’s Audible download. Clearly, they thought, the apotheosis of the book form would be a story that could read itself. In 1889, the writer Edward Bellamy published an addendum to his best-selling utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, solely to indulge his imagination of the marvels of sound recording. In “With the Eyes Shut,” which Bellamy sets in a “futuristic society,” everyone carries around a pocket-sized audio player known as an “indispensable.” The narrator, a time-traveler from the 1800s, is thrilled to learn that he can “read” on the train, where motion sickness previously kept him idle. He judges the talking book ideally efficient in other ways, too, since it conserves the energy he once spent on the act of reading—interpreting words—and devotes it to the grist of reading: the appreciation of language, the pleasure of plot. He raves,
A good story is highly entertaining even when we have to get at it by the roundabout means of spelling out the signs that stand for the words, and imagining them uttered, and then imagining what they would mean if uttered. What, then, shall be said of the delight of sitting at one’s ease, with closed eyes, listening to the same story poured into one’s ears in the strong, sweet, musical tones of a perfect mistress of the art of story-telling, and of the expression and excitation by means of the voice of every emotion?
Bellamy was what we might now call a maximizer. He had high hopes for a technological future in which productivity had been perfected: in the millennium outlined in Looking Backward, a rational disposition toward labor allows everyone to retire at age forty-five. Today, in reality, a mania for optimizing every minute feels required for survival in an economy where most people are working longer hours for stagnant pay, leaving scant free time during which life must be enjoyed as efficiently as possible.
The history of the commercial audiobook is one small window on the evolution of this ethic of efficiency. Though, as Rubery writes, the first unabridged books were recorded in the 1930s as a public entitlement for the blind, Audible is better understood as the spiritual heir to the books on tape that took off in the 1970s and 1980s by catering to white-collar commuters from the ever-more-distant exurbs. The typical listener, according to an ad from the eponymous Books On Tape company, which was founded in 1975, was “a sole proprietor or upper-level executive,” an aspiring Gordon Gekko who worked “fourteen hours a day” and lived “fifty-two minutes from [his] office.” With audiobooks, busy people could be even busier, and masters of the universe could also dominate work functions with lightly erudite small talk. Far from transforming life into an uninterrupted communion with literature, in other words, audiobooks attained cultural importance on the coattails of the idea that life is work and time is money, and you can never have enough of either. As the company put it in one suggested motto: “Successful people everywhere keep up with Books On Tape.”
Audible was founded in the mid-1990s on the hope that a downloadable audiobook would appeal to consumers more than a box of cassette tapes the size of a dictionary. From the first, founder and CEO Donald Katz saw portability as his selling point; several years before the Apple iPod came on the market, Audible designed its own version of Bellamy’s indispensable, an audio player “roughly the size and shape of an electric razor.” Katz’s pitch was to take the time we spend exercising or doing chores, “which is dead time,” he said recently, “and potentially make it reading time.” (Katz is a walking advertisement for his product: before founding Audible, he was a journalist who gleaned his best book idea from stories a friend used to tell him on jogs.) “Books require time, and you can’t give people time,” he said in 2015—so instead, Katz gave them a magically time-neutral book technology. Some competitive multitaskers listen at twice or even three times normal speed. A 2017 post on the Audible website takes the old Books On Tape ad to the next level, boasting, “there’s a world of movers and shakers getting through their books and podcasts in half the time.”
My monthly Audible subscription, however much I enjoy it, encourages this compression of labor and non-labor.
If the audiobooks of the Reagan era were aimed at middle-aged managers, today they’re as much a pastime for young underlaborers who must persistently hustle to make ends meet: 48 percent of frequent listeners are under age thirty-five. This change has tracked with our cultural conversation about workaholism: what was once considered an affliction of the wealthiest white men is now the acknowledged spiritual condition of an entire post-crash generation. Accordingly, today’s time-strapped audiobook listeners are diverse: black and white Americans with a college degree were equally likely to have listened to a book in 2018, according to a Pew study, and Hispanic respondents were slightly more so.
For many of these listeners, the turn to audiobooks is a function of what scholar Jonathan Crary calls “24/7,” a way of organizing society under late capitalism that ignores the rhythms and textures of daily life and blurs the distinction between work and leisure time. My monthly Audible subscription, however much I enjoy it, encourages this compression of labor and non-labor. It also helps fund a tech monopoly hell-bent on colonizing not only my precarious industry, but all of human existence—including sleep. To accomplish the latter on a market-mandated schedule, I buy a talking book to drown out my mind and its automatic striving to stay busy at all times.
There’s a yet more common, if related, critique of the audiobook industry, which is that listening is too passive, too easy, essentially cheating. As Rubery writes, “Listening to books is one of the few forms of reading for which people apologize.” The critic Sven Birkerts has employed the term “deep reading” to describe everything he thinks the listener is losing—in a word, prosody, the freedom to interpret rhythm and mood on her own terms. “Deep listening is rarely an option,” he writes, “Our ear, and with it our whole imaginative apparatus, marches in lockstep to the speaker’s baton.”
But relationships with books, as with people, are shaped by a million contingencies: who recommended it to you at what age, what you had for lunch that day, whether it dovetails with what you’ve been thinking about lately. There’s no perfect way to read. I still prefer print for following the trails of complex critical arguments, or for letting a perfect sentence ring in my head, but I become attached in a different way to the books I download on Audible, which stick with me—influenced by the actors—as stronger sense memories, immersions in tone.
There’s no ideal relationship with time, either, though attempting to use it perfectly might be among the worst things a person could do. Bellamy’s hyper-efficient utopia was so aesthetically offensive that William Morris, a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote an entire book in rebuttal. And what Donald Katz calls “dead time” is artistically and intellectually invaluable: it’s when writers get book ideas and readers find room to reflect on the books they have read. In that sense, it’s not only the Amazonification of reading that’s suspect, but of every small task—walking to the grocery store, browsing the aisles—that once created space for thinking about nothing.
“My writing time needs to surround itself with empty stretches,” the poet Maxine Kumin once wrote in an essay about how caring for her horses made her work possible, providing “the mindless suspension of doing simple, repetitive tasks—mucking out, refilling water buckets, raking sawdust—that allows those free-associative leaps out of which a poem may occasionally come.” The “empty stretches” are enforced by busyness but uncompressed by the pursuit of efficiency; farm work has “no beginning and no apparent end,” and within it the poet’s “contentment in isolation” can expand. I don’t have a barn full of horses, but I’m attempting to take more dog-walks in silence. Instead of doing chores, I’ve been listening to audiobooks while lying in bed—which takes far longer than silent reading, especially when my thoughts wander and I have to rewind. Right now, that torpor is what I like most. I think it’s good for me to waste some time.