Stepping-stones to literacy

While arguably I have arrived very late to the party, I recently came to appreciate the experience of audiobooks. Beginning with the short and easily digestible New York Times fiction podcast, which features authors reading short stories by their favourite writers, I graduated to full length audiobooks and have come to consider them a valid way of consuming literature. But it got me thinking:

In a modern age governed by the easy and passive consumption of television and the internet (and to a lesser extent, radio and podcasts), how has reading taken a back seat, if at all? Sure, the internet inherently involves reading, and offers numerous possibilities for the consumption of lengthy pieces, but recent research has demonstrated that many readers of the internet do little more than browse or scan the page, not really absorbing the meat of the article in question.1 Books, as any high school teacher (and even, sadly, university lecturer) will tell you, have dropped significantly in popularity, with the film or serialised TV show option offering a much less intellectually intensive mode of delivery. After all, you can’t be sure that everyone in your class is reading the book, when they are quite capable of reciting the story from what they have watched.

Books, of course, also offer another challenge. In a nation like South Africa with a significant portion of the population being illiterate, the great classics and local gems of popular fiction are largely inaccessible to many, apart from their being challenging to even those who can read and write. Here enters the audiobook. It sprang to my attention when I began listening to the New York Times fiction podcast (which you can find here and on iTunes) that this is an excellent way of passively ingesting a story and being able to ponder its meaning, or to consider its implications. Not everyone can read and understand Charles Dickens, for example, but almost anyone can listen to and enjoy a reading (in whatever language they may choose, I may add) of Oliver Twist. The audiobook, unlike the film adaptation, offers the full scope of Dickens’ excellent use of language as well as including every detail of the story, and even though a listener may not be concentrating all too hard, they will at the very least be exposed to the content to some extent, something which can’t happen with a book they won’t/can’t read.

But, I can already hear the outcries from readers all over: “There is no substitute for reading!”, gesticulating aggressively as I pass in the hallway. No, there isn’t. The audiobook is not without its cons. There is a certain neurological exercise or engagement inherent in the act of reading – it takes more brain power. However, therein resides the crux of “The Audiobook Argument” if you will: it is that very lack of brain power usage which makes it so fitting for the modern human, not requiring long periods of intense concentration but still offering the pleasure of literary engagement and being more accessible to the busy and possibly illiterate.

The audiobook, I argue then, offers two things I feel are desperately needed in our society, and indeed any society which in modern times has drifted towards the non-literate. Firstly, for a generation raised on the passivity and often mindlessness of excessive television viewing, the audiobook is very close to the means, but with (in my humble opinion) a much more worthwhile end. Literature, we know, provides an intellectual backdrop which is so often neglected in today’s education systems in favour of the sciences or maths, and the results, we have seen, are mostly negative.2 While the written word should remain front and centre, let’s at least accept as a compromise the conveyance of ideas in audio form. Secondly, for the illiterate, an audiobook is an obvious way to learn and “read” the world, and may lead to an enthusiasm for storytelling and act as motivation to pick up a real book and gain an invaluable skill.

There are of course two sides to this coin. But the point I would like to emphasise is that audiobooks have been largely overlooked (in my personal experience) and may prove invaluable to the lives of many – in schools and homes across the country. Perhaps they are the stepping stone to a more literate South Africa. We should at least give it a shot.


1 For a lengthy discussion on this, see Crary, Jonathan (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Chapter 1, pg 1-28. Verso: New York.

2 For an excellent discussion on the effects of television in America see Sachs, Jeffery (2011) The Price of Civilization, Chapter 8: The Distracted Society, pg 133-158. Bodley Head: London

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