Does listening to an audiobook give the same satisfaction or intellectual fulfillment as reading the book? I grappled with this question a couple of months ago when I bought my first audio book. Having spent most of my life reading books as a student, teacher, and publishing editor, it never occurred to me that I can consume books in any other way other than reading. So, listening to my first audio book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, felt like cheating. But given that I listened to most of these books while doing other things like working out at the gym or jogging, I cared less until last week when I listened to the South African comedian, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.
Trevor Noah’s story, narrated by himself, pierced my ears, and went straight to my heart through my brain. It walked me down the memory lane to my boyhood when I could sit by my grandma, and drink from her cup of stories. I had an insatiable appetite for stories, and she had acres of them, and a knack for narration. I wallowed in these stories, and developed a passion for literature. Unfortunately, going through a system of education that privileges written literature over oral literature compelled me to perfect the art of reading as a primary means of learning, and getting new information. In fact, apart from a few lessons of oral literature, most students in Kenyan schools have no access to forums or platforms for learning how to narrate stories.
Listening to Trevor Noah’s book reminded me of the importance of storytelling as a means of learning. Trevor gives an account of his life and his family during and after apartheid in South Africa in a way that only he could tell – he relives his life through the narration. A son of a Swiss-German father and a Xhosa mother, Trevor was born at a time interracial marriages were banned in South Africa. As a result, he was not allowed to meet his father in the open. He describes his life as a colored child in a country that considered his existence illegal.
As a polyglot, he is able to demonstrate how he navigated the racial and tribal conundrum in South Africa in a manner that connects you to the contexts he describes. His rhythm, pitch, intonation, and voice enriches the listeners experience without necessarily curbing your imagination. This type of narration is significant for the story as it captures aspects of a text that even a well-seasoned reader, unfamiliar with the context of the text will likely miss. For example, he mimics his bullies in their languages. Furthermore, his occasional adaption of South African English accent makes the narration lively and authentic.
Audio books makes multitasking simple and possible. They allow people who are usually busy with activities that demand visual sense or those travelling – driving or riding in public transportation – to enjoy books. With noise cancelling headphones, one can listen to books even in public and noise places. Those doing house chores or working out may find it convenient to listen to books, something that is nearly impossible with print books.
Audio books are also convenient for children and adults interested in learning how to pronounce words in English (or any other language). The fear that listening to books can lead to shallow understanding of a story are alleviated by an article by Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who argues that listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding, which is basically figuring out words from print. Moreover, experiments by various scholars have shown high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in adults.
Authors and publishers in Kenya should embrace audio books as it increases distribution of their works. With the continued advancement in technology and the increasing governmental interest in integrating technology in school curriculum, authors and publishers who invest in audio books are bound to reap huge rewards. The truth is that the reading public is constantly changing with the advances in technology.