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Sunday December 18, 2005

Alternative to reading

In today’s busy, busy world, here’s another way to become a widely read person without having to read – audio books! DAPHNE LEE explains why ‘hearing’ the written word can be a very satisfying option. 

LACK of time is the reason many people cite for not reading. It’s a feat just to juggle job and family. And then, there’s TV to watch and the garden to weed, shopping to do and people to see. Oh, and let’s not forget sleep. That’s necessary too! So when and where does one fit in reading? 

There are those who stay up all night or wake up extra early just to read. And there are those who read during meals and on public transport, in queues and waiting rooms, and at the wheel during traffic jams (not recommended). For those who can’t see themselves doing any of the above, audio books just might be the answer. 

Abdul Rahman Abdul Haniffa assumes the best position for listening to an audio book on his iPod.
“Audio books?” you cry. Aren’t they only for the blind or the very old and very young? In Malaysia, talking books (also known as spoken-word recordings) haven’t quite caught on with the public. In fact, Malaysians, in general, tend not to be very enthusiastic about listening to anything other than music (remember Talk Radio and how it bombed?). 

However, there is a slowly growing market for audio books here. Just as selfhelp books are bestsellers in Malaysia, that’s also true when it comes to their audio counterparts. 

At Borders Bookstore, located at Berjaya Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, self-help books, spiritual guides and history are the most popular with customers. The chain boasts an audio book collection of 2,500 titles and, according to general manager Janice Yong, “The average audio book customer at Borders is a male professional in his 30s and upwards.” 

At Kinokuniya Book Stores, at Suria KLCC, it’s the same story, although assistant manager and deputy department chief of merchandising and promotions, Abby Wong, says, “Some young professionals come in to buy fiction for their aged parents.” 

The bookstore’s children’s audio book range is also popular with expatriate parents. 

On the whole, it’s a trend that’s more popular in the West than it is here. “I didn’t even know that recordings of adult novels were available,” says Annie Fernandez, 28. The kindergarten assistant recalls listening to Ladybird books on tape when she was in pre-school, but has never come across any other kind of audio book. 

Wan Mohammed Shukri finds listening to books less tiring on the eyes.
Koh Lee Lian, a 24-year-old journalist with a local fashion magazine, was browsing in the children’s section of a bookstore when she saw Harry Potter on CD. 

“It reminded me of how I used to listen to tapes when I was little,” she says. 

However, Koh does not see herself listening to audio books now that she’s all grown-up because, “I love books and listening to them would take away the thrill of reading them myself. Maybe when I’m old and losing my sight I will resort to audio books!” 

In an article he wrote for The Bookseller magazine, Nicolas Soames, founder of Naxos audio book publisher and online store, says, “The image of audio books as a product exclusively for the visually impaired is difficult to dislodge.” Soames’ response? A quip about a colleague who publishes “printed books for the hard of hearing”. 

Nevertheless, the first ever audio book was, indeed, created in 1933, for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Interestingly, the AFB invented the longplaying record for this purpose and the technology was later adopted by the music industry. 

In Britain, the Royal National Institute of the Blind produced its first talking book two years later. 

The Malaysian Association for the Blind has a library of audio books comprising a mix of amateur and professional recordings. The former are done by volunteers and outnumber the latter, which obviously cost more to acquire. 

Elaine Lim buys books on tape for her kids.
The high cost of audio books read by professionals (usually stage and screen actors) is one reason why they do not have a large following with the general public. In Malaysia, an audio book on CD can cost as much as RM300, depending on its length. 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (part of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia) audio book, for example, costs RM79.90, a high price to pay when you can buy the print version for less than RM10 second-hand and less than RM40 brand new. 

Wan Mohammed Shukri, a retired engineer in his 60s, is interested in subjects like Western philosophy, politics and modern history. He listens to audio recordings of lectures downloaded from websites like The Teaching Company (www.teach12.com) and The Modern Scholar (modernscholar.com). 

“I like to listen in order to learn – it’s a much more conducive method than reading a thick book, which may be tiring on the eyes, especially at my age,” says Wan Mohammed who favours turning on his Mp3 player when relaxing in bed. He has paid up to RM400 per lecture series, but not many would be willing to fork out that sort of cash. 

“It adds up, doesn’t it?” says Elaine Lim, 32, a children’s apparel businesswoman. She has bought books on tape for her children, age six and three, but has never purchased any for herself. “I know you can borrow audio books from libraries in the United States and in Britain. I wish we had that option in Malaysia.” 

TV host Shamser Sidhu is trying his first audio book with The Da Vinci Code.
Actually, our larger public libraries do have small audio book collections. However, like other aspects of most local libraries, this is not a well-publicised fact. 

Libraries aside, a more affordable option for those interested in spoken word recordings is to download books in Mp3s format. However, although free legal downloads are available on the Internet, they are usually of inferior quality. 

At sites like audible.com, which specialises in audio books in Mp3 format, you pay a monthly subscription fee of US$2 (RM75). Every RM75 is equivalent to one credit point, exchangeable for one audio book of any price. So, basically, what you pay is RM75.50 per audio book, which is good value for money if the recording happens to be one of those multiple CD affairs that would cost close to RM200 from a bookstore. 

The time it takes to download a book may be off-putting, though. On average, it takes about 10 minutes to download 10MB. So, for example, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (a monster doorstopper of a book, which, in audio format, is 462MB large, comprising 29 discs with a running time of 32 hours and 36 minutes) would take you at least five hours to download – and that’s only if you have a broadband connection. 

Malaysians who purchase Mp3s of audio books are few and far between but they do exist. Fear Factor Malaysia host Shamser Sidhu recently picked up the audio book version of The Da Vinci Code because he figured that he would get around to “reading” it a lot quicker that way. 

“Lots of people have recommended the book to me, but I’m so busy these days I hardly have time to sit down and give my full attention to reading,” he explains. “I picked up The Da Vinci Code when I browsing at Borders. I thought since I spend a lot of time of the road, I could kill two birds with one stone and listen to the book while I drive.” 

Abdul Rahman Abdul Haniffa, who is in his 30s, has been listening to talking books since the early 1990s. Back then he listened to them on cassette. Now he uses his iPod. 

“I have owned my iPod for about six months and in that time, I’ve listened to 11 recordings comprising audio books, essays, speeches and lectures,” says Abdul Rahman, an IT company director. 

His Mp3s are mainly downloaded and purchased from audible.com although he does occasionally rip them from CDs. 

“I usually listen when I’m driving, walking from the parking lot to my office and when I go for my walks or runs in the park,” says Abdul Rahman. 

Many audio book users appreciate being able to enjoy a story while doing something else like driving or exercising. 

A selection of audio books that are available in leading bookstores.
For a book “addict” like me, listening to talking books means I get to enjoy even more books. I listen to them in the car, while doing the ironing and other household chores, in the bath, on walks and on the treadmill, and last thing at night after lights-out. 

Audio books also help me keep my children amused on long car rides. At the same time, I get to introduce them to new books: sometimes, someone like British actor Kenneth Branagh, who has made a recording of C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, is able to succeed where I’ve failed in making a story come to life. 

Actually, it’s often been my own experience that when I find a book too dry or am intimidated by its length, subject matter or literary reputation, I find it easier to appreciate it when it is read by a professional. 

Many audio book listeners feel the same way. Abdul Rahman, for instance, says, “For the longest time, I had wanted to read the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence Others, but found the text version flat and boring, and I could never get beyond the first two chapters. 

“The audio book version was a lot easier to complete – well, there was no real effort involved as all I had to do was listen! The assuring authoritative voice and tone of the narrator was appealing to me. If not for the audio book, I think I’d still be stuck at chapter two!” 


  • Borders Malaysia is offering StarMag readers a 15% discount on its audio books range until Jan 31, 2006 (or while stocks last). Present this article (no photocopies!) at the cashier when you make your purchase(s) at the Borders outlet at Berjaya Times Square (03-2141 0288), Kuala Lumpur, or The Curve (03-7725 9303), Mutiara Damansara, Selangor


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