Barry Eisler here... MJ, thanks for the invitation; glad for the diversion from politics and language (and recent questions about whether, as General Pace and Senator Brownback allege, gay sex is immoral) over at Heart of the Matter. Okay, let's talk audiobooks.
Stephen King claimed in a recent Entertainment Weekly column that he "couldn't disagree more" with the notion that listening to audiobooks isn't reading. I love King's books and admire the man, but I think he overstated his case here. After all, listening is listening. Reading is reading. Why confuse the two?
Because of the strange and misguided notion that listening to a book is somehow less worthy than reading it, that's why, and King was dead on about this subject in the rest of his article. I listen to about a dozen audiobooks a year in my car (last year was a bit higher, because I drove coast-to-coast and back to promote my current thriller, The Last Assassin; this year will be a bit lower, because of the 35-disk Shantaram, gorgeously written by Gregory David Roberts and masterfully narrated by Humphrey Bower). And I certainly read a lot, too, so I think I have the basis for a reasonably informed opinion on the subject.
Here's the electrifyingly uncomplicated truth: neither reading a book nor listening to a book is inherently more worthwhile, more valuable, or otherwise better than the other. They're just different. When reading, you mediate the book through your own inner voice; when listening, the book is mediated by the voice of the narrator. A point that I hope, by the way, will dispense with the canard that "listening to a book replaces the author's voice with the narrator's." The author's voice is never replaced. It's always right there in the text, no matter who is reading. What is in fact replaced in an audiobook is your voice, not the author's. But either way, what happens is a light show, not an eclipse.
I see no particular reason to always prefer my inner voice to the voice of a narrator. Sometimes my voice is better; sometimes the narrator's is. Regardless, what's wrong with variety? If you think your voice is always better, it might be just because you're so used to it. In which case, why not learn about other ways books might be read, by listening to someone else read them? Stephen King has an excellent list of his top ten in his EW article (and, unusually among authors, he's also an excellent reader). To King's list I would add, off the top of my head, the above-mentioned Shantaram; James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, narrated by Craig Wasson; anything by Terry Pratchett and narrated by Stephen Briggs; Richard Russo's Empire Falls, narrated by Ron McLarty; Patrick Suskind's Perfume, narrated by Sean Barratt. And anything, possibly even including a cookbook, narrated by Frank Muller.
Look, even if you labor under the misapprehension that listening to a book isn't as "good" as reading it, remember: the perfect is the enemy of the good. You might still want to read at home or on an airplane, but what are you going to do in the car? Are you better off reading when you can and listening when you have to, or not listening at all?
Besides, there's a side benefit to audiobooks that I almost hesitate to bring up because it'll make me sound like an infomercial: audiobooks are good for your health. I hate wasting time, and I used to get stressed from impatience while waiting in traffic or at a red light. Now, not only do traffic and red lights leave me untroubled, they actually make me happy -- more time to listen to the story! It's true: turn your high blood pressure into low blood pressure with quality audiobooks. (appropriate jingle here)
Assuming that listening to a book is a somehow inferior experience to reading one is the result either of faulty logic or a lack of experience or both. Get over the faulty logic and provide yourself with the experience -- you'll be happy you did.
Tomorrow: "MySpace: Opportunity or Antichrist?" Thanks for coming by.