Are audio books the new way forward?

‘Shakespeare should be seen, not read’, said Sir Ian McKellen. And he should know.

Would Shakespeare have agreed with him? Absolutely!

Not just because few people could read easily in those days, before the widespread printing of books. It is also because the rhythm and rhyme of Shakespeare’s writing is one of the most beautiful things about it. It should be heard at least, if not seen.

We seem to have come full circle in our tastes, because audiobooks are becoming the popular way that many people “read” nowadays. It is the fastest growing format in publishing, according to the Wall Street Journal, with double digit growth in the past couple of years. Demographically, it seems to be even more prevalent amongst the younger generation, especially boys and men. We’ll come back to this later.

However, it has gone even beyond audio being an alternative medium to the page or screen. Some authors and books are bypassing printed texts and being published directly in an audiobook format. Authors like Sophie Hannah (author of the three new Hercule Poirot books) and Joanne Harris, of Chocolat fame, feel like their books being voiced out loud is the natural way to ‘read’ them.

In fact, Harris has a reason for why young men have turned out to be the biggest market for these audiobooks, as she tells the BBC. When she was a teacher, she noticed that teenage boys rarely read fiction for entertainment. A big reason for this was because their parents believed they should be outside playing. Boys tend to stay away from things that society implies are less than macho.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. Many of the boys who come to me for tutoring are reluctant readers, in more ways than one. One of the things I tell them and their parents, over and over again, is that they absolutely need to read. You cannot write, not to mention write well, unless you read.

As a teacher, I have to say that I prefer my students to read in the old-fashioned way, where they turn the pages of a paper book. I think there is no replacement for the real thing, and it’s a skill you need to learn, regardless of how many other forms of the story are available to you.

However, I have to recognise that audiobooks are like BBC Radio 4 playing in the background as you potter around the kitchen or garden, except better. While listening to an audiobook you have control of the content, plus at the end of it you have “read” a book, and that’s much more satisfying than listening to music or some short-lived entertainment.

Also, audiobooks continue the great oral tradition of storytelling, that was the way knowledge and entertainment were passed on from generation to generation. Oral storytelling is gaining popularity in schools and other places were children converge.

However, if I were advising parents on how to get their child (especially boys) to read, I would tell them to make it a great thing to read in their house. Have books everywhere and make reading together a parent-child bonding activity. Discuss books you have read together, download book study kits for them and do the activities.

Children learn by example. If you are not a reader, it is unlikely that your child will be. Make a family pact to turn off the telly and other electronic devices for a few hours a week, or even one day on the weekend and plan reading, and reading-related activities, with your children.

You can even start small, and with non-fiction, by having them helping you in the kitchen by reading out a recipe. Help your child understand the genre of instructions. Show them that all instructions start with a verb, in the infinitive, like boil or chop or stir, and are in chronological order.

Just making your child aware of the link between what they read and how to write is one of the most important things you can do for them academically. However, reading and writing are skills that will stand the test of time much beyond education, making your child confident about finding answers to problems and getting information they will need for life.

Not to mention they will possess the magic of unlocking the wonders of infinite worlds and stories that lie between the pages of books. As George R.R. Martin says:  “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”