Storytel review: How this Swedish audiobook streaming service did in the eyes of a traditional book reader
Head in the clouds
To the icebreaking question "What do you do to pass the time?", a good number of people respond "reading". And for good reason – nothing beats sitting down with a great read, submerging yourself into worlds (both fictional and based in reality) far away from life's woes for a few hours. Not as many responders, we'd wager, would answer the same question with "listening to audiobooks". But all that's about to change, if the growing wave of audiobook apps is any indication. Case in point: Storytel. The Swedish audiobook/streaming powerhouse debuted Singapore (and Southeast Asia) this year, with an impressive library of over 85,000 titles. Now, I must admit to being a non-believer, as a traditionalist who loves paperbacks above all else, and agreed to a test-drive of their service with a healthy amount of skepticism.
The Storytel app
The app, designed to accompany the idle brain during long commutes, is only available on phones and tablets – not laptops. And in any case, as I would discover later, multitasking (which is tempting especially on laptops) is pretty much out of the question while listening to a story if you planned to catch the full flow.
Signing up was a breeze, and the app's interface on my phone was quite pleasant. Their titles were nothing short of impressive, featuring high-profile books like Michelle Obama's biography "Becoming", Marie Kondo's organizing expertise brought to the written word in her book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying", and popular crime fiction titles like Dan Brown's "Origin".
Avid scrollers will be pleased by Storytel's Book Tips function – it's extensively guided, and some of the catered selections may lead to the begrudging suspicion that they had somehow attained access to your nostalgia triggers. By this I refer to "Grew Up with Harry Potter?" – a section after my own heart. A quick scroll also featured categories like "Travel Stories to Fuel Your Wanderlust" and non-fiction options related to well-being and empowerment, including "Treat Yourself Better" and "Women in Business". There's even a list of "Books Voiced by Game of Thrones Actors", so if you can't get over the fact that the series is over, you can still be read to by the distinctive voices of on-screen siblings Alfie Allen and Gemma Whalen (who played Theon and Yara Greyjoy respectively), as well as listen to the lilted tones of pure, sweet Gilly (played by actress Hannah Murray).
Alas, I have particular book wants, so on to the Categories function I went. Here it looked as you would expect, with stories organized according to genre (ranging from Biographies and Economy to History and Classics), including a special Kids Page offering a restricted range of child-appropriate stories. My first thought, the cynic that I am, was doubtful that children were likely to give up more attractive, colourful forms of entertainment (like TV) for listening to someone talk for up to eight hours. Then again, it could be useful for parents who need a break from bedtime stories every now and then. But are audiobooks engaging enough?
The audiobook experience
Listening to an audiobook is quite a different experience to reading a book, because your eyes aren't occupied but your mind is captured in rapt attention to the story unfolding in your eardrums. And listening required my full, total concentration – I was unable to multitask while listening to a story if I had any intent of keeping up. All it took was a glance at an email, and I would be lost once I turned my attention back to the narrator. In that sense, audiobooks don't really save you time; it requires just as much scheduling as expected of finishing a normal book. Perhaps even more, in fact, because audiobooks can be over ten hours long, whereas reading a book front-to-back could be done in the space of an afternoon depending on your pace.
Yet the appeal of it was unlike any other form of entertainment. The pauses and intonations of the expert narrator breathed life into written words exquisitely, and as the story unfolded, it was shrouded in much more riveting drama than if I had read it myself. I discovered, however, that certain narrators appealed more to me than others – something or other about the timbre of their voices. That also means there's potential for a hit or miss that doesn't come with old-fashioned reading, when your only focus is the flow of the words on the page.
At the end of the day, audiobooks are really a separate thing in themselves. They wouldn't be considered substitutes for paperbacks in my book (no pun intended), plainly because the two styles in question aren't equivalent enough. The case for audiobooks and books is similar to that of movie versus play – they're simply different artforms with distinct features to both love and hate. They are in a league of their own.
Frankly, my preference would still veer towards reading a normal book, because there's a clash between my impatience and the high time investment each audiobook requires. My recommendation? Have a listen on commutes and just before going to bed (Storytel does have a convenient bedtime function). But only if you're the type who isn't desperate to know how a tale ends once it begins, and if you don't mind taking the time to have it told to you – in that case, audiobooks are definitely worth the serenity that tends to settle upon you when you sit back, put your headphones on, and listen.
Storytel subscriptions are S$9.90/month, S$14.90/month, and S$19.90/month for one, two, and three unlimited accounts respectively. For more information, visit their website.