Illustration: Kate Hazell

The rise of audiobook snobbery—and what it's really about

Reading a book—not listening to it—has become its own sort of status symbol
March 5, 2020

You can’t talk about reading without talking about snobbery. At some point in the last decade, we decided to abandon most forms of physical media, therefore making a rod for our own backs when it comes to gift-giving (remember when you could just give someone a Monty Python boxset and be done with it? Now your choices are a candle and a skydiving experience) and providing us even fewer clues as to who we really are. Once upon a time, you could walk into someone’s home and piece together their entire existence based on the DVDs and CDs on their shelves. Now we’re supposed to puzzle out who they are by how they yell at their Alexa.

Books, for some reason, have survived this unremitting cull. Books are the clue, the key, the Rosetta Stone for finding out who someone is. As a result, books have become more of a lightning rod for conversations around snobbery than ever. Every day there’s another riot on social media about people who aren’t reading “properly” (see a recent panic about people who chop big books up into chunks as they read them, to lighten their weight); there are fights about book awards and who has been snubbed by them; fights about book awards mattering at all. And, despite the fact that we are living in the era of podcasting, there is still snobbery around audiobooks.

“Well you didn’t really read it then, did you?” has become the common response to conversations around audiobooks, which have been growing steadily more popular over the last few years. And as with many items in rising demand, audiobooks become more scorned the more popular they get. “Nobody sits on a couch to listen to one. Nobody rewinds to linger on a particularly beautiful passage; nobody dog-ears a book on tape,” claimed an essay in Wired published in 2018. “It’s hard not to feel like something is lost in this transition.” Yes indeed, here is “reading” you can—very practically—do at the same time as driving, dusting or anything else. Which is exactly why audiobook snobbery has come to symbolise something big, deep and strange in our collective unconscious.

We are no longer using things to demonstrate status. We are using time. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen brought us the image of the silver spoon. It is “no more serviceable than a machine-made spoon,” he wrote, but exists to showcase our taste, our refinement, our ability to make elegance of our own daily lives. In the 20th century, we were driven by having beautiful things—now we focus on beautiful time. Time is the only resource that we cannot buy more of—and it’s the one that is often most scarce.

Thus reading a book—not listening to it—has become its own sort of status symbol. A sign that you value the right things in life. Interestingly, it also means that we are turning more things into books than ever, so that we might enjoy them in their most elegant format: speeches by Greta Thunberg, scripts from Fleabag bound into a hardback edition called The Scriptures, bloggers whose posts are compiled into tomes with very little new content. At some point in our multimedia existence, we’ve decided that books, as the most time-consuming way to enjoy something, are therefore the best way to enjoy something.

In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett expands on “the aspirational class,” the highly-educated sector of society that prizes books, carries tote bags and attends farmers’ markets. The Beautiful Time people. Currid-Halkett observes that the aspirational class’s dedication to breast-feeding is part of the same thing. That, behind all the touted benefits of breastmilk and the evils of formula, was a class snobbery based around how long you were able to be physically tethered to your child. “Are you breast-feeding?” has become a more neutral way of saying “are you taking a long, luxurious, expensive maternity leave so that you can properly bond with your child?”

Books, breast-feeding, sky-diving trips… they all signify the same thing: that we are now a society that shows our status with time spent in a worthwhile fashion, and not with the stuff we consider fashionable. While such minimalism might seem noble, it also makes social mobility harder to accomplish. The old middle class trying to make it into upper might have had to, say, start attending polo matches. But anyone trying to break into the bourgeoisie today faces a sterner test: the “middle” has become so codified that you step over cultural tripwires at every turn—and, of course, you need bags of time.

Is this TV show worthwhile enough for me to spend 11 hours on it? Is having Jane Eyre recited to you by Thandie Newton a less valuable experience than struggling through it yourself? Can I taste the difference in my farm fresh organic potatoes, or is it that I took the time to select it from an outdoor market 40 minutes from my home that makes them better? And as snobbery becomes more tied up in leisure, how do we know when we’re even having fun anymore?