Forget needing a driving beat to run. Hannah Ubl is listening to audiobooks while training for her first half-marathon.
“The quality and production values for audiobooks have gotten so much better,” she said. “It’s easy to get swept away.”
On recent runs, she’s alternated between listening to her favorite Harry Potter novel and “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” a nonfiction bestseller about evolution.
“I like the escapism, but I need the learning,” said Ubl, 28, research director for the generational consulting firm Bridgeworks. “I feel like I’m wasting time when there’s any moment of my day when I’m not learning.”
Anyone with a smartphone has an audio player in their pocket. With just a few clicks to an online publisher or subscription service, you can be listening to a blockbuster mystery, a spy novel or a biography while you drive to work, walk the dog, wash the dishes or fold the laundry.
Having a storyteller at your fingertips is proving to be a strong lure.
While sales of print and e-books are flat or declining, downloads of audiobooks are soaring. According to the Audio Publishers Association, digital downloads jumped by 34 percent in 2015. The number of audiobooks published in 2015 stood at 35,574, more than four times the number of audiobook titles published just five years earlier.
And listening is only getting easier.
Minnesota’s public libraries have made a sound investment in audiobooks. When patrons access audio titles online, the books show up directly in their digital devices. Books are typically available for two to three weeks, then simply disappear.
“Our customers like audiobooks because they’re convenient; they can download from home. They don’t have to worry about returning the item, and it won’t get lost or damaged,” said Polyxeni Angelis, who selects audiobooks for purchase by the St. Paul Public Library. “And they don’t have to worry about returning it or accumulating fees.”
There’s an intimacy to listening to a book that some fans find irresistible.
Cassie Scharber, an associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Minnesota, has developed a special affection for audio memoirs that are read by their authors. She made a point of downloading “Yes, Please,” by comedian Amy Poehler.
“I wanted to hear Amy tell her story and land her jokes,” Scharber said. “I got more out of it because I had it in her voice.”
The production qualities are improving, as well. Some audio publishers are hiring star-studded casts to read and are creating more layered and polished soundscapes.
Listeners are swooning over the just-released audio version of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the debut novel from acclaimed short story writer George Saunders that is certain to raise the bar for the medium. It casts 166 voice performers, including Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Lena Dunham, Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Tambor and Keegan-Michael Key.
Its publisher, Penguin Random House Audio, is seeking a Guinness World Record for most individuals’ voices on an audiobook in connection with the seven-hour production.
Hearing vs. reading
Even hard-core readers have fallen for audio storytelling.
Some literary traditionalists contend that listening is different from reading and research is currently underway to study how people remember and retain content when they hear it rather than read it.
But the U’s Scharber isn’t overly concerned about the distinction.
“Reading through hearing is still reading,” she said. “Both our auditory and visual channels are deeply connected to the brain.
“We gather so much through multiple channels now,” Scharber continued. Being digital “means we take in a blend of information through text and also pictures, moving images, audio and even apps, messaging and real-time chats.”
Sheila O’Connor turned to audiobooks out of necessity rather than desire.
After the novelist and creative writing teacher at Hamline University suffered a concussion, she was unable to read. To her surprise, O’Connor has become a devoted listener, as passionate about the spoken word as she has long been about the written word.
“I realized how much I love the sound of a story,” said O’Connor, 58, of Edina.
“When I’m listening to a book, I have to pay close attention. Reading, my mind might drift,” she said. “As humans, we crave story. The sharing of the story is more important than the method of delivery.”
O’Connor now listens to — rather than rereading — the texts that she assigns her graduate students. And she said she’s smitten with the convenience of audiobooks.
“I love how I can have the book with me at all times,” she said. “My husband and I went on a trip and got a dual jack so we could listen to a book simultaneously, on the airplane and on the beach. We are able to stop at the end of every chapter and talk about the story in real time. I loved the process of sharing that.”
The pull of audio content is so strong that fans are beginning to wonder if having an easily accessible stream of stories is crowding out something vital: silence.
“We never want to do nothing and just think about life,” said Ubl. “If you study creativity you know inspiration comes when you allow your brain to turn off. Much can be found in the world of quiet but we’re uncomfortable there,” she said, “and we are missing something important.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.