If I told you there was a recently released project starring Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Lena Dunham, and Ben Stiller (among many, many others) you would naturally assume it was the next Hollywood blockbuster, right? Well, you’d be wrong. One hundred sixty-six narrators total make up the cast for George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook released on February 14th by Penguin Random House. This is the logical next step in the ever expanding audiobook evolution. According to Time Magazine, Penguin Random House is even applying for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for “most individual voices on a single audiobook.” This is a big deal for the publishing industry, but what does it mean for print books? The growth of the audiobook is taking readers further away from the printed word, and therefore, further away from actual books. It wasn’t that long ago there was some alarm within the book industry when the e-reader first made its appearance. There was talk about the death of print books and shutting down brick and mortar bookstores. With e-readers, though, readers could still do what readers do- we read. Audiobooks allow users to take in a story without ever seeing any text at all. With this new approach to audiobooks, is now the time when will we actually start to see the elimination of the written word in literature?
We are busy people. Between work, family, exercise, Netflix, brushing twice a day, and flossing there is just very little time left over for anything else. Many people who are pressed for time, but still want to consume novels, are turning to audiobooks. Audiobooks don’t require any extra time in our already hectic lives. Rather, they allow us to actually succeed at that magical activity we all attempt to do: multitasking. Those daily routines can actually be enhanced by listening to the latest bestseller read aloud to you. Smartphones, iPods, tablets, and laptops offer users instant access to streaming audiobooks. Gone are the days of having to go to the library and check out several CDs housed in those huge, bulky plastic cases that were scratched up from previous loans causing them to inevitably skip at a crucial juncture in the story. Apps like Audible and Overdrive make it almost effortless to have an audiobook delivered to your device in a moment’s notice without ever getting out of your PJ’s. This is an ideal method of reaching users who may not otherwise be able to take in a novel (the immobile and the blind, as well as the pressed for time) but for those of us who prefer the written word, audiobooks simply do not provide a better way of interacting with books. If a reader is multitasking, by definition- doing many tasks at once- they aren’t really giving the audiobook 100% of their concentration and are bound to miss something crucial to the plot. Can it even still be considered reading if “readers” never see a word of text?
By virtue of streaming services that allow users to watch television when and where they want we are currently living in the golden age of broadcast entertainment. With these large-scale castings and narrations of audiobooks, we are, quite possibly, entering into the golden age of publishing. Scribd seems to be the closest thing to a book streaming service currently available. However, it is not unlimited, only offering three e-books and one audiobook monthly for $8.99. This limitation does allow users access to new releases and bestsellers, including the audio version of Lincoln in the Bardo. There is also unlimited access to Scribd Select Books, which are the books you would expect to find in an unlimited category. Netflix has the market on the streaming television and film industry, but let’s be honest, its options are not the best. I only keep my subscription for the Netflix original shows. If we are in fact on the precipice of an unlimited book streaming service I sincerely hope that users will have access to quality literature and not an oversaturation the B-movie equivalent of books like what we see in the free and unlimited sections of online booksellers.
Instead of a replacement of books, I believe that we are actually beginning to see a new form of literary entertainment emerge. These theatrical castings of audiobooks will appeal to some, but not to all, which is why print books will continue to be published. The audiobook, in all its versions, will coexist right alongside print books instead of replacing them for the simple fact that they are not the same thing. Radio has evolved to include satellite radio and podcasts while television is now the best it has ever been thanks to streaming services and apps. Traditional radio stations are still on the air and television continues to exists despite the streaming services. It’s safe to assume that even if audiobooks continue to grow, expand, and develop into a whole new form of entertainment like straight-to-audio productions, we will continue to have print books for a very long time.
Truthfully, I doubt that we will ever see an end to printed books. A Slate article gives a good explains why the death of print books inevitably comes into question with the appearance of new literary technologies: “It is not by chance that the idea of the death of the book surfaces in moments of technological change. This narrative, in fact, perfectly conveys the mixture of hopes and fears that characterize our deepest reactions to technological change.” Video didn’t kill radio and e-readers didn’t kill paper books. Technological change can feel a bit treacherous when we first encounter it, but print books and audiobooks will continue to live a very complementary life together. The uncertainty I felt when the e-reader surfaced passed and I now read predominantly via Kindle. Instead of losing that really good writing, the kind that you revisit and highlight and reread over and over again, we will presumably see an entirely new and exciting medium emerge. One that lives parallel to other forms of entertainment. And if David Sedaris and Nick Offerman are on board with it, then it can’t be bad.