Under my byline

Books on wheels

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 27 December 2008

OVERLEAF 11

The average daily car-borne commute to and from work, in most parts of the world, takes about 1.1 hours. This and much other information is available in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), a 2008 book by traffic researcher Tom Vanderbilt.

That’s 1.1 hours of valuable time we give ourselves just when it is most needed — before diving into the maelstrom of office work and immediately after we climb out. It’s good “me time”, says Vanderbilt, and people use it in all sorts of ways, from phoning to playing music to eating, praying, composing to-do lists, completing one’s toilet… Only one of the things we do in there is drive.

What about reading books?

Unsafe at any speed? Maybe a little. But, like the emperor Akbar, you can have your books read out to you by the finest voices money can buy, and unlike him, still continue to guide your chariot in relative safety. After all, if your vehicle already serves so many functions — office, living room, dining room, dressing room, nursery, storeroom — why should it not also be a library?

Audiobooks are not a new phenomenon. In the most basic way, they are far older than printed books. In antiquity, well after the end of a purely oral history (think of the Indian epics and Homer), texts were meant to be read aloud, performed rather than silently absorbed in solitude. Few could read, but everybody likes to be told a story. Something like that situation quite likely persisted until printed books became ubiquitous, as late as the 18th century.

But the modern audiobook — which is a regular book narrated into a recording device by the author himself, or by a professional actor, and then sold as cassette, CD or downloadable file — harnesses technologies that make the public private. We’re accustomed to reading as a solitary activity, but we’ve also learnt to multitask intensively; therefore, in a car or while cooking, say, an audiobook will help you make more of your time while keeping your hands and eyes unencumbered.

Naturally, the most popular audio titles include thrillers, detective stories, bestselling novels, self-help books, language courses, study material. But there are plenty of niche markets too, such as for serious non-fiction, which can be supported by the generally high prices publishers charge for audio versions of their books. (For popular titles, prices start at $35-40, because publishers don’t want to undercut regular sales.)

On the Internet, quite a few websites offer free audiobooks of works in the public domain — that is, which are old enough to be out of copyright. On LibriVox.org, to take one example among several, you can listen and even volunteer to read aloud.

So, now that India has the cars, the hour-long commutes, the booming books market, the fast Internet and the money, not to mention the history and the love of chatter: where are the audiobooks?

Nowhere yet. A quick poll of publishers indicates that, while they are all either vaguely interested or still catering to the textbook-plus-CD market, few besides Rupa are doing anything new. Rupa’s chief Kapish Mehra won’t say what they’re planning, except that several titles “across genres” should be out in 2009. Other publishers don’t even sell in India audio versions of foreign books.

Perhaps Indian-language publishers can lead the way. It’s possible that their costs will be smaller and the market bigger. There may even be something in it for the many voice artistes and theatre students (such as those at the National School of Drama) for whom work could scarcely be called plentiful.

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