Contrary to the assumption that audiobooks further discourage people from cultivating a reading habit, they have opened up new libraries for those with visual disabilities, brought people closer to their mother tongue, and more.

A woman sits with her mobile phone listening to it, in front of a table
Features Books Friday, May 20, 2022 - 19:20

The first time someone suggested an audiobook to me, I'd dismissed it, loudly tutted and given a ridiculous speech about the beauty of holding a book. Now, a year later, I have finished 44 books on multiple apps, turned into an enlightened convert, and pretty shamelessly been pushing others to 'try these audiobooks most urgently'. There appears to be an idea that those who take up audiobooks leave the physical ones behind, like discarding the old for the new. Not true, if you hear what many listeners, readers, writers, publishers, and persons with disabilities tell me about it. 

A lot of them found their way back to books, having lost a precious reading habit in the years that life turned too busy. For quite many others, it has become a way to connect to the mother tongue they grew or lived apart from. And for those with disabilities, it has opened up whole new libraries.

“For a long time, I’d only buy books but not read them. I just didn’t find the time. Then I subscribed to Storytel (ebook and audiobook app) and began listening to Danthasimhasanam, the Malayalam version of Manu Pillai’s Ivory Throne. I’d listen when I cooked, drove and lied down to sleep at night. Before that, I used to watch YouTube and OTT videos at night. Now, I’d choose books that I can’t otherwise finish, but really want to. This has brought back the reading habit I missed so much,” says Parvathy Nair, senior programming head of Red FM.

Danthasimhasanam / Storytel

A bit of history

Audiobooks, in one form or the other, have been around for a very long time. In the 1930s, they existed as chapters or parts of books recorded for the blind on discs and vinyl records with limited capacities. Two decades later, Long Play (LP) records allowed for the taping of longer portions – poems and short plays in full. Caedmon Records, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is considered a pioneer of audiobooks of the time. Penguin Random House launched its Listening Library in the same decade, recording children’s books. Also in the mid-1950s, American couple Arthur Luce Klein and Luce founded a company called Spoken Arts, recording hundreds of literary works by Arthur Miller, WB Yeats and others on LP records.

Then, of course, cassettes were invented, and books began to be recorded on audio tapes. By the 80s, several audiobook companies were already in existence, and during the mid-90s, the Audio Publishers Association estimated the market for audiobooks at $1.5 billion. The Internet allowed far more possibilities, and in 1997, Audible — a podcast and audiobook service — launched the Audible player that could record up to two hours of audio. Now, another two-and-a-half decades down the lane, we have reached a point where one can listen to any amount of books spanning hours of recorded narrations.

“I have observed during my travels that audiobooks are used by a lot of Malayalis living abroad in the Gulf countries, the United States, Canada and so on. For one, it is not easy for them to find Malayalam books there. For another, they often drive very long distances, staying far away from their workplaces, and have the time to listen to audiobooks along the way,” says M Mukundan, renowned Malayalam writer.

Read: Mukundan’s Delhi Gadhakal takes you through the thick of three wars and the Emergency

Bringing NRI kids closer to Malayalam

Vinod Kuroor, who works with DC Books and was a consultant for Storytel Malayalam, says this is true for many nonresident Malayali children who can’t read the language. “Ravi Deecee (Managing Partner of DC Books) talks of Gulf kids who started to study Malayalam after listening to some of the classics on Storytel, and their parents thanking him for it,” Vinod says.

M Mukundan

Even within Kerala, there are many who are as unequipped as the Gulf kids when it comes to reading the language they can speak so well. Paresh Palicha, a freelance journalist with Gujarat roots, has been living in Kochi and comfortably conversing in Malayalam, but not knowing how to read the language. His friends would talk highly of Malayalam classic literature, and sometimes read them to him. But after discovering Malayalam audiobooks, Paresh began picking his own favourites. "I began hooking up my Bluetooth speaker and listening to Malayalam books for two to three hours everyday. I have covered most of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's books, besides a few of Mukundan's and Benyamin's. I have completed at least 50 books so far," says Paresh, who has cerebral palsy. 

New libraries for people with disabilities

Listening to books or text is not a new deal for persons with disabilities. Screen-reading softwares have been around for a while, as has the practice of volunteers reading books at blind schools. But audiobooks opened up new libraries, says Tony Kurian, a blind PhD scholar in sociology at IIT Bombay. "There is a difference between screen-reader softwares and audiobooks. One is a word-by-word synthesiser, and the other is a human voice. You use a screen reader for academic purposes, while audiobooks allow a somewhat disengaged reading, something you can do even when you are involved in a physical activity. I am interested in narrative nonfiction and I read fiction for pleasure. For people with visual disabilities, accessible books are a challenge. But audiobooks have opened up a new set of libraries."

Interestingly, many blind or low vision people initially found it frustrating when audiobooks functioned at only one speed — it was too slow for them. Used to listening to text at higher speeds, they now amp up the speed to double or triple of the original, Tony says. 

Audiobooks have also become the answer to people who lost their vision or developed sight issues at a later stage in their life. Actor, writer and entrepreneur Archana Vasudev talks of her father, who was in the medical field and an avid reader, but eventually began losing his sight due to retinal detachment. One of his biggest worries was that he could not read. "For a while, he used something like a lens that could enlarge letters. But that didn't really solve things. I was in the US then and was able to access audiobooks — this was in 2008. So, I put a number of books on an Apple iPod and brought it to him. It was a life changer for him. Fourteen years later, he still uses it. He listens to books for five hours everyday without fail," Archana says.

A way to reach Malayalam from faraway

Like Ravi Deecee discovered from his friends living abroad, many lovers of Malayalam literature have suffered with little access to books. Aysha Markerhouse was one of them, living far off in Taiwan, where Malayalam books were nowhere to be found. She searched for a way out and found Storytel five years ago, devouring the books of Basheer, KR Meera and Mukundan. She began playing the books in the background as she worked or drove. And for her little son Adam, she began offering children's books set in the Indian context. "Audiobooks also helped me get back to physical books. I had nearly dropped the habit and never sat down to read. But audiobooks removed those blocks. You also get to hear all sorts of native accents this way. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's books are read by someone from her hometown in Nigeria. When there are books that especially make you feel for them, I both read and listen to it. I read the English version of Nadia Murad's The Last Girl, on an ISIS bride. And because her hardships affected me deeply, I went and listened to the book’s Malayalam version as well."

Chitrasenan, of the Modern Book Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, says that people seeking out the books they loved listening to was always a possibility. He does not have the data to support this theory. But as a seller and a listener, he stands firm on the idea. 

Writer Mukundan has another theory. "Audiobooks are still only catching up in Kerala, because here Malayalis don't face the same problem as the NRIs. They can easily go out and buy the books they want. Another reason is that unlike in western countries, we don't spend a lot of our time driving smoothly on the road, we need to navigate the bumps and potholes on the way," he says. Not perhaps the frame of mind to absorb mind numbing stories or characters, he must mean.

Mukundan does not plan to record his own audiobooks, he says, though he sometimes narrates the stories he writes for the Mathrubhumi magazine. KR Meera, another popular writer, has a different view. She would like it best if she read what she wrote, she says, but hasn't had the time. "I think there are still only a nominal percentage of people who try audiobooks, and I have heard very few reviews," she says. 

Technology helping reading habit

It does not really matter how people read as long as they imbibe the written word, and in that way, technology has helped. That's the thought of Shobhana, state librarian at the Public Library in Thiruvananthapuram. "Earlier too, people used to read when they travel. Only, those were books you held in your hand on a train or a bus. A friend you took along," she says dreamily.

"Now it is the phone you can't do without that has become dearer than books. It is a revolutionary change, and clearly, it has not reduced the reading habits of people. Only the space they read from has changed. From social media to ebooks to online discussions, they are always reading something. This way, they can not only read, but write too," Shobhana says. 

Then there are those who came back to the printed book all the more strongly, after a taste of the audiobook. Vinod Kuroor gives examples. “One of my cousins, who used to be a huge reader and gave up the habit later on, began listening to audiobooks when he travelled long distances for work. He’d connect a Bluetooth speaker and play books on it, which eventually led him back to paperback. Another man, a veterinarian surgeon, said he began listening to Thakazhi’s classic work, Kayar, which is about 42 hours long on the app. After listening to the book, he wanted to read it so badly that he went out and bought it the very next day,” Vinod says.

Kayar / Storytel

It took time for audiobooks to come to India. In fact, it was just four years ago that Storytel began offering Malayalam options in a tie-up with DC Books, the audio recorded by chosen narrators at one of their studios. There might have been the initial lull, a prejudice coming from the likes of me looking at anything new with a touch of scorn.

But some others embraced it with open arms and, well, ears. “I started with some big (long) books, but it was a bit difficult to get that going in the beginning. So I switched to short ones — mostly Basheer's. This helped me a lot to get myself adjusted to audiobooks,” says Rakesh Konni, an IT professional and early connoisseur of Malayalam audiobooks. When he found it difficult to pay attention sometimes, he would read the book and listen to its audio version simultaneously. But other times, like many users of the app, he listens to books while he finishes his chores around the house, doing dishes or clearing tables. 

There are also many who listen while they drive, like the folks Mukundan found in foreign lands. For Vinay Menon, a professor and standup comedian in Kochi, most of the listening happens when he drives. “I am 80% audiobooks now, only 20% physical books. But that is positive, because otherwise there had hardly been any reading for long. Earlier, I wouldn't have read a five column story, but (now I have) listened to a 55-hour audiobook,” Vinay says.

A game changer for the ill

Audiobooks have also come to the aid of those pulled down by health issues, unable to do little else but stay in bed. Sajan Gopalan, former head of programmes at Doordarshan, says audiobooks were a revelation to him, a blessing at a time he fell ill. “I was incapacitated for a couple of months due to back-to-back illnesses. In this period, I listened to about 30 books, including big ones like Kayar (nearly 900 pages), KK Kochu’s Dalithan, MP Narayana Pillai’s Parinamam, Romila Thapar’s books and so on. There was no strain. You can just close your eyes and go into a trance. They say 25% of one’s energy is spent by the eyes. Maybe that’s why audiobooks seemed more relaxing,” he says.

Dalithan / Storytel

Audiobooks became a necessity for Raja Hariharan, a research engineer based in the US, when he became nearly bedridden for two years after severe health issues. “I couldn’t really read or watch anything. So, I took an Audible subscription, and it was a game changer. Initially, I used to listen to a lot of books on back surgery and pain management, to educate myself before going under the knife. Then I switched to a bunch of philosophy books, before turning to sci-fi books. During the peak stage of my sickness, I must have listened to books for about six to eight hours a day. Now, it is more like one to two hours. I have realised that the most important aspect of an audiobook for me is the person doing the narration.”

For many audiobook listeners like Raja, the person doing the narration is a major criteria when it comes to choosing the right book. There are some listeners who have discarded  books because they could not stand the narrator. Journalist Aswathy Gopalakrishnan says some narrators do awful voice variations, turning her off many audiobooks. While she finds it hard to get a sense of continuity when returning to an audiobook she had paused, her five-year-old nephew loves listening to any or all parts of children's books like Nandanar’s Unnikuttante Lokam. "By the time he turned three, we had run out of stories to tell him when he went to bed. So, we began playing chapters of Unnikuttante Lokam. He would be happy to listen to any episode and go to sleep. He would also pick up big words like 'sankocham' (Malayalam for ‘hesitation’) and use these in everyday conversations," Aswathy says.

Unnikuttante Lokam / Goodreads

Meet the narrators

Audiobooks have also opened up a new career option — narration. Most narrators do it part-time, since it is a very strenuous exercise, recording for hours on a stretch. Shashma, who has recorded over 40 Malayalam books, says she takes a break between every two days of reading, or it would cause too much strain on her voice. "After COVID-19 broke out, I began staying at a guest house offered to me by DC Books and recorded books at their studio for 15 days a month. I begin at 9 am and go on till 5.30 pm, breaking only for lunch or tea," she says.

Shashma strongly believes that only someone who likes books can do a good job with the narration. "It would not be a 100% investment otherwise. As it is, narration is a dry process. The listener can only hear you. There is no music or any other voice (some apps use background music, but Storytel, which Shashma works with, does not). Imagine there are five different characters in a scene, and only you are there to give voice to all of them. The listener has to identify who is who." Shashma marks the difference by stretching her voice for an older character, speaking sweetly for a child, and changing her tone for every new character. "You don't exactly change your voice. That will be like mimicry," she says.

Both Shashma and Rajesh K Puthumana, a popular narrator, do not read the books prior to their narration. They might have read the book before, but they don’t do it specifically for the task at hand. Rajesh, who has many big audiobooks including Kayar and SK Pottekkatt’s Oru Desathinte Katha to his credit, says the tone and emotions to be used just come to him at the time of narration. "I am a high school teacher and I go to record at the studio after school hours. I don't do mimicry, but rely on my instincts and logic to narrate. Dracula, for instance, would have a deeper voice than the other person, who would be scared and use a lighter voice. I have put my voice to use on many platforms as a stage artiste, an anchor and so on. DC Books contacted me to narrate books after seeing my kathaprasangam (an art form that blends the tradition of music and speech together) performance," he says.

Rajesh has received a lot of positive feedback for his very lifelike reading, besides some amount of criticism for the voice modulations he uses. In the early days, he used to employ too much of a shallow voice for women characters, he concurs. But he has taken the criticism in its stride and made some changes in his work. "I was criticised for my reading of Manu Pillai's Danthasimhasanam, but the author himself passed on his congratulations to me through my daughter. I have incorporated a few changes in my work now. But to emote, I rely on my natural feelings. I do feel sad when the story gets sad, and I relate to my own experiences in life, so my voice would break and I'd unthinkingly cry," he says.

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