A non-conformist, or so I thought. At least when it came to reading.
As someone who loved the rustle of each page being flipped as much as what was written in the book, e-books just didn’t bring me the same joy. The experience was filed under ‘Not For Me,’ even though I observed that most people of my generation had shifted loyalties to e-books.
I continued visiting bookstores and buying new releases, timeless classics, and anything that caught my attention or that I had heard something good about. Not having enough shelf space meant my beloved companions went into boxed storage under the bed after they were read. This also gave my e-book lover friends a prompt for yet another conversation why e-books were the way to go. But, I continued to resist.
Then... life happened. I was prescribed complete bed rest due to a medical condition. Being allowed to just sleep on my sides, with legs raised meant reading got really difficult. I couldn’t hold an e-reader or a physical copy of a book for more than a couple of minutes, and reading while lying flat on the bed put additional strain on my eyes. All this meant, I couldn’t read without wanting to put it down the book every couple of minutes. It made the entire reading process so fragmented.
The story comes alive, through the narrator, through the narration
That’s when a cousin, suggested ‘audiobooks.’ I scoffed at the suggestion, mentally. I thought if e-books couldn’t cut it, how could audiobooks, where I had to listen instead of read? But, boredom got the better of me and I relented.
I downloaded this app called Storytel. With a 14-day free trial and unlimited access to books, I thought it would be best to try and see if audiobooks would make the cut for me. Downloading the app, I realised it was like I was in book heaven. So many titles, so many authors to choose from.
I recollected how much I had enjoyed my English Literature Professor reading aloud some of the poignant moments from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. So, I decided to revisit the classic. To my surprise, I found the English Masterpiece being narrated by many narrators, many of whom were recognised artistes. That’s when it hit me, that it would be difficult to choose, because every narrator has his or her own strength that lends a different perspective to the story. As far as my first audiobook went, I chose Wuthering Heights narrated by Carolyn Seymour, the British artist who appeared in some of the earliest television series on BBC, acted in a few movies and even lent voice for several video games. (I didn’t know all this, until I googled who Carolyn Seymour was).
Listening to Seymour savour the words, and effortlessly capture the blend of desire, chaos and evocative descriptions of the lonely Moorland, added another dimension to the classic I had fallen in love years ago. A great voice, with the right emphasis on tone, inflection and articulation does truly make a story come alive.
Revisit any of the classics, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet or Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, on an audiobook service like Storytel and see for yourself how listening to narrators guide you through the story, makes the entire ‘reading’ experience as immersive as it can get.
And, I felt what make these stories powerful are the voices behind it that lend emotion to the narrative. I was surprised to find some of the biggest celebrities and leaders have narrated a few books. Will Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation and does a cameo as himself in The Big Bang Theory, and is also a writer and producer in his own right has lent this voice to more than a dozen audiobooks, most of which I found were available on Storytel. While in Dancing Barefoot, he examines life, love and the absurdities of Hollywood in a compelling autobiographical narrative, in Dead Trees Give No Shelter, Will tells a beautiful horror story that uncovers the buried fragments of a murder that happened 20 years ago. I found myself listening to Meryl Streep, Joe Morton, Michelle Obama, among others.
(Pro tip: If you are a Jeffery Archer fan, you have to listen to Lorelei King reading The Prodigal Daughter.)
Among indie books, many young Indian celebrities too today lend their voice to audiobooks. Ravinder Singh, the Indian author most known for his debut novel I Too Had a Love Story, turned into a narrator for the works of Mitali Meelan, a Young Adult and Contemporary Indian writer on Storytel. Famous for her role as Cuckoo in Sacred Games, actor Kubbra Sait has narrated a Storytel original series by Rukun Kaul titled ‘Until Again’. Konkana Sen Sharma and Satyadeep Misra will be seen narrating Anita Nair’s Twin Beds.
The fact that some of the most accomplished leaders and artistes see voice as a powerful medium speaks volumes in favour of audiobooks. And, surprisingly, this isn’t a recent phenomenon. While most of us today know Barbara Rosenblat for her role in Orange Is the New Black as Miss Rosa, the stage and television actor is a premier audiobook narrator who has voiced more than 500 titles in the last 35 years.
To be honest, I never thought I would vouch for audiobooks. But today, here I am. The fact that audiobooks bring a story alive through storytelling and do that effortlessly, is what made me a regular listener. But, that’s just one of the many reasons why audiobooks are a game changer. Here are the other key reasons:
1. Even if you believe you are addicted to reading pages filled with words, once you start listening to audiobooks, you are likely to agree that listening is as rich experience as reading. It isn’t one competing against each other, instead of one enriching the other and creating a world, each distinctive. If anything, the growing popularity of audiobooks only testifies to the power of voice as an engaging medium for books. There are 1+ million subscribers of Storytel across 18 countries, the world’s first streaming service for unlimited listening and reading on the mobile phone. And, just two years ago, the Swedish audiobook service storytel launched in India, and since then people have been talking about how it has been helping them to catch up on books. I have seen people on social media saying how they are not only able to complete but super achieve their reading goals.
2. Most of us will agree that speaking in the mother tongue is not the same as reading. Even though we love our Indian languages, we have lost the flair for it when it comes to reading or writing. This means, we lose out enjoying some rich literature in Indian languages. It is here again, that audiobooks can turn the tables. On Storytel, you will be delighted to find stories in regional languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali,Urdu and Malayalam. I am waiting for Kannada books to be made available on Storytel.
3, Let’s accept. We all lead hectic lives. A customary phone call to a friend now features on the weekend to-do checklist. So, even if we would love to catch up on a good book every week, it’s not always possible. This is where I find audiobooks helpful. In fact, it is a delight for a multi-tasker like me. I can catch up on a book while doing routine chores - prepping for the next day’s meal or just folding the laundry or cleaning the cupboard.
4. Audiobooks gives our eyes their due break. I am glued to the laptop and the mobile at least 12 hours a day. If I were to add, the time spent on watching TV, even on the occasional weekends, that number is bigger. So, taking that cup of filter coffee, plugging in the earphones, plonking myself on the swing and getting immersed in a story, is what I look forward to unwind.
5. Now, as readers, we all have individual preferences when it comes to the pace at which we would like to read. And, sometimes that is also influenced by our mood, the genre, and even the time that is there at hand. Also, some of us can’t do without taking the book and slowly falling asleep. This is where we assume, audiobooks might fail a conventional reader. But, today audiobook services like Storytel have taken these preferences into consideration and worked on the technology to make audiobook experiences as close to reading an actual book. For instance, on Storytel, I can change the pace of the narration, create a bookmark, and add a note whenever I find something interesting. With the sleep timer, I can choose how long I want the book to play, a feature that has been quite a hit among other audiobook listeners.
6. And, one of the best things about audiobooks is that they are easy on the pocket. At just Rs 299 a month, I have access to over 1 Lakh titles. Which means, I can now reserve the money to invest in a rare book title I would really like to own or add to my modest library instead of just being compelled to buy a book I would enjoy only once.
Now, to many, these reasons might still not be compelling enough to give audiobooks a try. It’s true that I got hooked on to it because of the circumstances I was in, if not I would have easily counted myself in with the naysayers without even giving audiobooks a try.
That said, when I think about why, at the core, I have enjoyed audiobooks is probably as Indians, we belong to a rich oral tradition. I remember growing up listening to stories narrated by my parents. That’s when it hit me that it’s only during my adult years that I have hardly had an opportunity to listen to a story and enjoy it. Until Storytel happened.
They said, India might never shop online. Today, we do.
They said, India might never buy groceries online. Today, we do.
Now they are saying, India might not listen to a book.
I did. Many are.
But, the question is — are you willing to see how a book can be enjoyed, beyond just reading?