Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Review of “Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1” by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood [Audio]

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1: The BiographyReminiscing about Metallica

There was hardly elbow room, that’s how packed with metal fans the open-air arena was — people with attitudes and a passion for good hard music.  The summer night was electric.  The anticipation for the Metallica Load tour to Indianapolis, Indiana, on 02 July, 1996, was unprecedented in our teenage minds.  Songs like “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were on the tips of our tongues, waiting to be screamed out in unison with James Hetfield and other fans alike.  This 1996 tour was set at a time in Metallica’s career where their fan base was firmly and internationally in place.  I didn’t know a single person who had never heard a song off of the Black album, the frequency of “Enter Sandman” on Indy’s X103, the favored radio station for hard rockers at the time, contributing to this.  In fact, this was how my friends and I learned that Metallica was coming to Deer Creek.  We immediately went to the local Ticketmaster at Kroger’s and bought four tickets.  Like every metal fan going to their first concert, we worshiped those tickets on the altar of metal, and we banged our heads in acceptance of their awesome goodness.  The day finally arrived.  I had a car, so we all drove to the concert in my 1978 olive green Chevy “the beast” Malibu, listening to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning all the way to Indy, which was a good three hour drive for us.  This little road trip mentally prepped us for the energy and excitement of seeing Metallica live, on stage, at the Deer Creek Music Center for the first time.  How could we have had any idea for the sheer magnitude of such an experience?

Aaron was the only one who had been to a concert before.  He had gone to see Pearl Jam, which as a band compared in no way to the show we were about to see.  Rumor had it that Metallica put on an epic show, that they knew how to entertain their audience.  We were about to find out.  The opening act was setting up their stage as we entered the arena.  Jerry Cantrell, known for his part in Alice in Chains, opened for them, which was a pleasant appetizer, but it did nothing really to prep us for what was coming.  Our thirst could only be quenched with songs like “Metal Militia” or “Whiplash.”  Cantrell, a musician of some renown even, didn’t really stand a chance.  It was a great experience seeing him perform live, but it was just not what we were there for.  Finally, everyone cheered for Cantrell and his exit.  The stage went dark.  The night had settled upon us, and Black and White Rock Handsthe crowd was buzzing with energy.  The smell of pot and booze was everywhere, the open-air pavilion doing little to clear out the heavy cloud looming over all of the smokers looking for a fix just before the show.  Out of the darkness, Hetfield’s voice bellowed loudly into the night, “So fucking what?”  Signs of the horns were held high by everyone in the crowd, as the stage lights flared into existence and metal filled the air, revealing the only thing between us and the stage to be a sea of long conditioned hair waving in perpetual motion set to the razor-edged rhythm of fast-paced guitar rifts and drum percussions.  The rumors were right; what a great show that was.

Getting to know the Band

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1 is the coming-of-age story of the band that I worshipped as a teenager.  It is safe to assume that by this point the band really needs no introduction in this review.  If you, good reader, don’t know who Metallica is, then I recommend picking up the Master of Puppets album (1986) to listen to “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” or the Black album (1991) for a sample of “The Unforgiven” to get a feel for what this band is like.  Hell, any song off of any album will be telling for their style of music.  The moment I learned about this biography, I jumped at the opportunity to read about the metal band that I followed so diligently during my teen years.  I downloaded an audio copy of this book with the same enthusiasm I had those so many years before when I waited in line at the Ticketmaster.  Metallica was about more than simply banging heads and marching around angrily.  It was about having a release for that anger, for being different, for being ourselves.  It meant knowing that we weren’t alone, that we were fans, belonging to a like-minded collective — a legion really — of people who saw in Metallica a way of fitting in, but, most of all, it was about being cool.  That Metallica, themselves, were much the same as their fans only made them all the more influential, all the more important to us.  We could relate to them some how.  It was part of being a teen to like them, at least in the circles that I ran around with, especially during the 90s when music and popular culture were taking a darker, more burlesque, more sinister theme. This had its appeal.  The decadence of the 90s was marked and inspired by musicians like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, Maynard James Keenan, Till Lindemann, Rob Zombie and Jonathan Davis, amongst others.  If it wasn’t dark, it simply wasn’t.  The undertones surrounding the 90s were dystopic; the millennium was approaching its end, and people were feeling jubilant (or morose) about the end of days.

Metallica always knew how to stand out from the crowd, though.  This biography, written by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, music journalists both, sets that clear.  This book helped to explain a lot of the emotions I was experiencing for the band in the early 90s when the Load album was released.  Like so many other fans felt, Load took some getting used to.  The rifts were milder, more melodic, not the same high-tempo rifts as their previous works.  Many saw this album as a break away from the thrash metal scene that Master of Puppets and And Justice for All so skillfully represented, and it disappointed fans, including myself.  As Lars Ulrich states in the biography, which has been paraphrased here, thrash metal was a scene they ultimately wanted to distance themselves from.  There was no future in it for them (qtd. in Brannigan and Winwood).  It had been their desire to perform first and foremost for themselves that makes Metallica the remarkable band that they are, but I failed to see this back then.  The only thing that I knew was that they were changing their approach to music, maturing as performers even, and I felt betrayed by what I failed to understand.   I eventually came to love songs like “Until It Sleeps” or “Outlaw Torn.”  In fact, I listen to the Load  album with a great appreciation for many of its songs now.

Brannigan and Winwood reveal how this wasn’t the first time fans felt disappointed for a move Metallica made in their own interest, what with the song “Fade to Black” on the Ride to Lightning album, the second to be released by the band in 1984.  This song broke from the head-banging, stage-diving, moshing traditions that were often associated to thrash metal concerts, and some fans immediately distanced themselves from the band for it.  Metallica stuck it out, though, and played the song, regardless of reactions from their fans — and more importantly, from the reviews that followed.  While their passion for the music they wrote is clear, the turbulence that came with being a rock band filled with adolescent emotions amidst the public eye takes a different toll on their music, especially as they were seen breaking away from normal conventions, a point the biography captures well with personal anecdotes from band members, music journalists, producers, and other friends to the band.

Keeping a Distance

One thing the band sought to keep its distance from was the drama that was often associated with stardom.  In fact, the band didn’t really make a major name for themselves until almost a decade after their founding with the release of the Black album by Elektra Records, the first major label to back up their name.  Before this, Brannigan and Winwood remind us that they had a lot of great reviews.  They were even adored by fans on the British metal scene and their West coast home front, but they were striving to move away from the same gigs.  They toured arduously with bands like Ozzy Osbourne, serving as the opening act, in order to get as much stage time as possible.  But, while Metallica was focused on playing smaller venues and opening acts, building a name for themselves with fans who identified with their simple image, hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison showed off the glamor and glitz that came more typically with being rock stars of the 80s (notice the comparison between the two bands here):

Picture of Metallica

Copyright Megaforce Records, Inc.

Picture of Poison

Like night and day, we see from the two pictures above how Metallica appears dressed in little more than their jean jackets with torn off sleeves and long hair; no adornments of any kinds, as opposed to Poison, who dresses themselves in leopard-skin prints, tight-fitting leather pants, head bands and other such accessories that were typical of the 80s hair metal genre.  We need no audio samples to tell from these two pictures how differently each group was to one another.

Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the two original founding members of Metallica, sought to keep as much distance from these types of bands as possible.  From reading the biography, one even gets the impression that Ulrich and Hetfield loathed these other bands.  And with good reason.  According to one anecdote in the book, Ulrich and Hetfield were promoting their up-coming concerts by personally handing out flyers to people in one club, while band members from Motley Crue were flaunting their lifestyles around with chics at their table.  When it came to performing, Brannigan and Winwood make it clear to the reader that Ulrich and Hetfield were all about work first, then play.  The performance, not the “show,” was what mattered.    The fact that they made it to billboard charts without the aid of MTV or any radio airplay in America is a testament to the hard work they invested into the promotion of their music.  Ulrich, the more ambitious of the two, was always looking for connections and leads to promote their name,  the book revealing quite a holistic look at the groundwork being laid during their earlier years.  But, for all it was worth to keep the band’s name away from drama, it was an inevitable part of their careers as rock stars that it should find them.

The relationship with Dave Mustaine, who later went on to create the band, Megadeth, is an example of such drama.  His excessive drinking and thirst for satisfying his ego, a true rock star’s calling card, was one of the earliest friction points in the band, his lifestyle a contradiction to their hardworking mentality. Ultimately, he was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who has since been the band’s lead guitarist (Brannigan and Winwood).  The book tells us how this happened midway through a tour, with Mustaine sent packing back to California, while Hammett flew overhead en route to where the band was to replace him.  Another account that led to the inspiration for “Fade to Black” was a robbery of their equipment just outside of Boston while touring for Kill ‘Em All.  This set-back was a major burden on their financial situation at the time.  On the verge of entering into recording for Ride the Lightning, their profits from sales were fully devoted to financing this label, even to the point of living modestly.  At the time, Metallica was a band that set themselves apart from other bands like them, holding to a discipline and rigor unlike any other in the industry, but they weren’t really making much money doing it.  While there are a number of reasons to attest to this, one can definitely say that things started to look up for Metallica once Cliff Burton, the sought-after bassist from San Francisco, joined them, creating for the band a unique harrowing sound that helped to make a more professionally driven Metallica as a result.  They knew what they were making was good.  In fact, his baselines are  what made him one of the greatest bass players the heavy metal world at that point had ever known.  Regrettably, he is the source of Metallica’s third mishap with unwanted drama.  While in Sweden on their And Justice for All European tour, Cliff Burton was crushed in an accident as their bus’s driver lost control of the vehicle due in part to black ice on the early-morning road.  Band members had little time to mourn, though, as business is business, and they departed on their Asian tour scheduled to take place as originally planned, only four weeks after his death.  This forced them to move on, and fans were largely sympathetic to them all for it.

About the Book

This biography is worth the read if you are looking to learn more about an international band that established its roots first in hard work and self-image.  Without having that sense of what they themselves wanted from their music careers, they would have ended up like many other metal bands of the 80s, distant memories of an iconic era.  Instead, Metallica challenged many of the conventions that defined heavy metal at the time and paved the way for many bands to follow in their wake.  By setting their own ambitions around their commitment and passion for heavy metal, instead of catering solely to their fan base, they were able to withstand the test of time and have become one of the planet’s most influential bands.  Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1 is an excellent look at not just the founding of one of metal’s most famous bands, but at the making of a genre of music that has since never looked back.  If you’re a novice to the metal scene and would like to learn more about what this subculture has to offer, especially from the vantage point of the 1980s, then this book is a great start.  Volume 2 of this biography will be set from the Black album (1991) onwards and is pending release “in autumn 2014” (Perry).

Works Cited

Brannigan, Paul and Ian Winwood. Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1.  Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013. Audiobook.

Perry, Andrew. “Back to Black: Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1, by Paul Brannigan & Ian Winwood, review.” The Telegraph Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.