Recently divorced, I didn’t anticipate the compounding effect of living apart from my teenage daughters during a pandemic. After exhausting Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, I obsessively watched every English Premier League soccer game available.
Yet the moment my devices were down, loneliness and isolation pooled around me like a rip current. I’d never been a fan of audiobooks, probably because the ones I had listened to years ago were abridged and sounded like they were recorded by a relative of the author in their bathroom. However, I got turned onto them again last year when the disdain for lighting on my 4:45 a.m. commuter bus made it impossible for me to read a book or Kindle. I was surprised by the tremendous advances. Novels were not simply read but performed by a stellar cast of seasoned actors in state-of-the-art studios. Now, almost a year into solitary confinement, they have become an obsession. Driving, cooking, and walking have all been accompanied by an audiobook, with a slew of colorful voices fed into my head, pushing my own darker ones out.
Familiar voices are comforting
It began with Salman Rushdie’s "Quichotte" from iBooks. The download took seconds and for a few dollars more than an e-book or hardcover, I had a permanent recording that could be played on any device I wanted — my iPhone being the most practical. Vikas Adam’s reading of the lines, the way he morphed in and out of characters, like a poltergeist, reminded me my Indian family and friends back in England.
Familiarity, as it turned out, has been a big part of audiobooks’ success, which has seen consumption skyrocket by 15% in the United States over the previous year. In the United Kingdom, the numbers were even higher — a 42% surge. Pre-pandemic, in 2019 they accounted for $2 billion in annual revenue and by 2027 that number is estimated to balloon up to $27 billion, according to grandviewresearch.com. No wonder, Audible, Amazon’s audiobook flagship, has been able to call on the services of a slew of Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhall to populate their library.
While Audible is by far the market leader, other services such as Kobo, Google Play Books, Scribd and Spotify Books also offer subscriptions services but with generally less books than the Amazon behemoth.
A cost-free experience
Audiobooks, whether purchased through a subscription or individually, add up. As a member of the Brooklyn Library, I had a viable alternative. With the right app — Libby by Overdrive — I could download and borrow multiple novels for 21 days with 10 "on hold" for free. No wonder the library’s popularity has soared.
"The general upward trend we saw in 2020, in which patrons are increasingly interested in borrowing audio books, began long before the pandemic," says Amy Mikel, Brooklyn Library’s director for customer service. "This year, the selections borrowed reflected the world around them. Titles like 'How to Be An Antiracist,' 'White Fragility.' and 'So You Want to Talk About Race,' topped the charts, and '1984' was one of our big audiobooks as well."
The library has made borrowing any number of current audio or e-books available to a wider demographic by extending their e-card service for customers throughout New York State. "Books provide a way for patrons to learn a new skill, get information, or escape back in time or maybe even to an exotic location without ever leaving home," Mikel says.
The wider availability has resulted in an increase in both audiobooks and e-books for the library, with 73,938 audiobook checkouts in December 2020.
A similarly upward trend holds true for the Los Angeles Public Library, where audiobook usage was up 21% in 2020 over the previous year, according to Catherine Royalty, acting collection services manager. December 2020’s audiobook checkouts at LAPL were 251,248.
The swipe of a finger
I hadn’t always been such a book addict. Music was always my thing. Why else use headphones? During the pandemic, though, I needed words that were spoken rather than sung. I needed to feel the drama of people’s lives, their stories delivered in a way that didn’t sound fake or manufactured. Most of all, I needed a distraction. That also meant escaping from a screen, incessant e-mails, texts and vacuous scrolling that gave me a false high like a sugar rush after which I felt hollow and low.
In my head I was on the chaotic streets of Mumbai or on a fraught road trip across alt-right America, with more accents than a pre-COVID-19 departure lounge, but in reality I was alone, going for long walks, snaking past cornfields and peaty streams or driving to see my kids. That’s the other advantage of audiobooks over conventional ones — they allow you to listen whilst on the move, a handy distraction from the mundanities of life. More important, for those dealing with mental health issues or dyslexia, which makes focusing on the written page difficult, an audiobook is an invaluable alternative.
It turns out there are psychological terms for the way audiobooks have been embraced during the pandemic. One is "narrative transportation theory," explains Jacob Turner, PhD and associate professor in media and communications at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. It essentially refers to the way a "good and engaging narrative can transport us to another world, it can take us out of our own sad/lonely pandemic-fueled world to another place and time," he says.
Another term is "parasocial interaction," which addresses the "virtual human interaction with a persona in the media, which over time, can develop into a real sense of kinship, friendship and closeness felt by the media consumer towards that media personality," Turner says. "I don't think it's much of a leap to theorize that people also form parasocial relationships with the people who read them audiobooks, not to mention the authors who wrote them," he adds.
I have no idea how long my audiobook addiction will last once the pandemic ends. I’m in no rush to kick the habit. Once we’re all vaccinated, I’ll be elated to travel again and be surrounded by familiar voices. Until then, I’ll always have the ones pumped into my head to keep me company.
Jeff Vasishta, a writer and music journalist, lives in Crown Heights.