Of course they are. Modern technology improves over records, tapes (even cassettes), and CDs. Bluetooth streaming frees the listener to move about and perhaps pursue other activities while listening. Purists might quibble whether the reader really appreciates a book heard rather than read.
My question, however, lies in a different direction. I recently listened to an Arthur Conan Doyle tale read by an accomplished artist. In the course of this particular story within a story, the reader managed English, Scottish, Irish, American, male and female, high- and low-classed accents, even adjusting his narration to the assumed voice of Dr. Watson and an ambiguous American gangster as the setting required. And he was good, except for the women’s voices. He even managed dialogues between clashing accents. The point is: he did so well that the story, in a sense, became as much his as Doyle’s. The “reader” entered the story through his interpretation of the various characters’ voices.
Professor Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” famously argues that drama (and presumably cinema) is “not imagined but beheld” and therefore is “an art fundamentally different from narrative art.” The interpretation of the story by the actor, director, camera man, makeup artist and (these days) computer programmer overlay, if not alter, that of the author. In fact, such a presentation can “produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism.” (One can only wonder what he’d think of Perter Jackson’s productions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.)
But Tolkien’s point is well taken. Was what I listened to tinted (remember those “colorized” black-and-white movies?) by the particular shade of glasses worn by the producer or, in the case of audio books, the reader of the story? Perhaps it is exactly at the point where the reader becomes noticeable that he or she does interfere, otherwise the reading is merely a changed form of presentation. Certainly a dramatized reading—with a cast of voices, music and sound effects—becomes an interpretative experience.
C. S. Lewis is famously, if erroneously, quoted as saying, “We read to know we’re not alone.” The author writes to connect with the reader. We read or listen, not just to hear the story, but to enter the world or receive the message created by the author.
In that regard I think we can confirm that audio books, unlike the cinema, can be taken as unadulterated messages from the original writer precisely to the extent that the reader does not insert him- or herself into the reader’s consciousness.
Happy reading. (I still feel as if I’m cheating, but that’s my problem.)