I’ve heard murmurings (verging on admonishments) from certain literary circles that listening to audiobooks is cheating — as if listening to a book instead of reading it removes the atmosphere of serious contemplation that must accompany genuine engagement with literature. It is true that physical books bring with them traditions and a reputation that is hard, if not impossible, to replace. Many readers who first discovered their love of books as children have elaborate stories of being tucked away with a paperback in a favourite corner of their home, or plunging into the pages of a novel under their bedcovers at night by flashlight. I think of my mother, who remembers reading Harlequin romances as a young girl while wedged between the wall and a bookshelf of her family room, a playful story that she’s adapted into her own writing. These memories are layered with nostalgia and contentment, evoking the experience of reading in all its reclusive, intimate, and cherished physicality. This is not a history any of us wish to erase by encouraging readers to turn to audiobooks. Rather, audiobooks introduce to literature their own nostalgia and world-building.
I’m thinking of the joy of being read to as a child, an experience that for many of us began with our parents or siblings. I remember some of the books my father read aloud to me more viscerally than books I’ve read as an adult, perhaps not in detail but in the feeling that arises from engaging with another person through the act of storytelling. I remember also my grandmother’s voice translating Czech fairy tales into heavily accented English to lull me to sleep at night — and perhaps also to encourage me to remember a language I was losing. There’s something special about listening to a story read aloud and hearing not only the content but also how another’s voice affects and is affected by it. I rejoice in audiobooks for capturing the nostalgic tradition of childhood bedtime stories and the joy of being read to by another person.
The actors chosen to narrate the books in House of Anansi’s audiobook collection often connect with the stories on a personal level. Michaela Washburn, a Métis performance artist based in Toronto, joined Anansi to narrate The Break by Katherena Vermette, and quickly returned to narrate Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, when it was obvious that Michaela’s voice was made for audiobooks: “I was incredibly honoured to lend my voice to the works of Tanya Talaga and Katherena Vermette, and I was deeply moved by the courageous storytelling of both these writers. In fact, I continue to be inspired by the ferocity with which Tanya so clearly exposes the devastating effects of systemic racism that continue to plague this country and ripple through the next generation of our Indigenous youth. As a woman with blended backgrounds, the subject matter of both these books resonated deeply with my lived experience. In narrating these stories, I am grateful to feel on some level that I am contributing to the infusion of truth that is so desperately needed in Canada at this time.”
The stories that Michaela narrates are laden with grief and emotion. It was a profound experience in the recording studio as we engaged with the works to bring them to life, and the gravity and emotion of these subjects radiates from Michaela’s performance in her reading.
And then there is the unique opportunity of having a work read aloud to you by the author herself. Teva Harrison’s intimate memoir In-Between Days is a work of stunning vulnerability and strength, heightened by Harrison’s own narration of her work. In the Anansi audiobook, listeners hear of Teva’s experience with metastatic breast cancer in her own words and in her own voice. Listen, too, to Elizabeth Renzetti read her poignant, funny, and critical observations on the need for modern feminism in Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls (audiobook edition forthcoming August 2018). You can hear the inspiring urgency with which she writes in her narration.
Finally, consider Martine Leavitt’s reaction to listening to the audiobook edition of her novel Calvin for the first time: “Reading the Calvin audiobook, Rupert made the story his own, discovering nuances I hadn’t even known were there, and often making sentences or paragraphs sound completely new. I found myself asking more than once, ‘Did I write that?’ I did! But the story wasn’t just mine anymore, and I realized it was never intended to be. Listening to the audiobook, I heard the story become someone else’s, just as it should be.”
Listening to audiobooks is not a lesser form of engagement with literature. The attention and care that goes into the creation of audiobook editions, and the often personal connections of narrators to the works they read will only enrich and enliven your experience. I deny the suggestion that properly engaging with a text must be done with a tone of rigorous study. Don’t put bounds on the pleasures you take from reading, but enjoy and engage with these books in all that they offer.