Sunday Salon: Listening to Books

Regular readers of this blog will know that I listen to lots of audiobooks. That hasn’t always been the case. For many years, I was a skeptic about audiobooks. I couldn’t imagine getting as much out of a book by listening to it as by reading it. I didn’t have anything against audiobooks, but I had no interest in them myself. So what changed?

I think my interest in audiobooks started with my pleasure in listening to talk radio, especially story-oriented shows like This American Life. Once I started frequently finding myself sitting in my car after getting home so that I could listen to the last bit of some story, I understood that listening can be just as exciting a way to encounter as story as reading can be. But I was still skeptical about novel-length stories, spread out over a long period.

What finally got me started on full-length audiobooks was the release of the Lord of the Rings films. I wanted to reread the books before the release of the movies, but I didn’t have time to read all three each year, so before The Two Towers was released I decided to take advantage of my 20-minute drive to work and listen to The Fellowship of the Ring before I reread The Two Towers. What fun it was! The audiobook allowed me to experience the story in a whole new way. The next year, I listened to The Two Towers and The Return of the King and enjoyed them just as much. Then I decided to refresh my memory on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series by listening to the audiobooks before the publication of  Song of Susannah. Soon, I was regularly visiting my library’s audiobook section, looking for audio versions of books I wasn’t able to make time to reread. I listened to a couple of Jane Austen novels, to Anne Frank’s diary, and to Frankenstein. But audiobooks were for rereading, not for first reads. Surely I’d miss too much on a first read.

In 2006, two things changed that caused me to rethink my view. First, I got a new job that lengthened my 20-minute commute to 45 minutes on a good day and 90 minutes on a bad day (or every Friday afternoon). I couldn’t stand listening to the vapid drive-time radio conversation during such a long commute, and I usually got enough of the not-so-vapid National Public Radio while getting ready for work (and they have a tendency to repeat news stories, which makes listening for hours less than ideal). So audiobooks became essential. The second issue was that I had nearly exhausted my library’s stock of audio versions of books I’d already read.

So I decided to give audio a try for a book I hadn’t read. I don’t remember what book I started with. My best guess is that it was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Whatever the book was, it was enough of a success to keep me listening. And when I moved closer to my office and once again had a 20-minute commute, I kept listening to books. I do still confine my audiobook reading to the car. I’ve found I simply can’t focus well enough when listening at home. I could listen on my iPod while going on walks, but that’s my podcast time. (This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me are my podcasts of choice, though I’m considering adding Radiolab and The Moth to the menu.)

The past years of listening to audiobooks has taught me a few things. For one thing, I’ve learned that just as experience makes us better readers, it also makes us better listeners. I’m much better able to listen to complex stories on audio than I used to be. However, I’ve also learned that some books translate better to the audio format than others. If the language and the story are overly complex, it’s hard for me to take it all in adequately. (I can usually muddle through if the language or the story is complex, just not both.) Also, a good reader can make or break the audio experience. This was most evident when I listened to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, which had three different readers.

I’ve also learned that some books are better on audio. The audio format of  A Clockwork Orange forced me to just go along with the strange language and pick it up from context. I’ve found that the humor of  authors like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris comes across much more clearly on audio than in print. And certain tendencies of popular fiction that drive me nuts in print, such as predictability and repetitiveness, can work just fine on audio.

If you’re looking for audiobook ideas, you can check out my audiobook reviews or visit the Audiobook Jukebox for links to reviews by many other bloggers. Libraries can be a great source of audiobooks, and some even offer audiobook downloads through Overdrive. I rent my audiobooks through a Netflix-like service called Booksfree.

What about you? Do you listen to audiobooks? If you don’t, why not? Of you do, what works and what doesn’t for you?


Notes from a Reading Life

Books Read

  • Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan (audio)
  • A Void by Georges Perec. Translated by Gilbert Adair.

Currently Reading

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (church book club)
  • I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton (audio)
  • King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

New Acquisitions

  • Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumley. From Bookmooch.
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38 Responses to Sunday Salon: Listening to Books

  1. Amanda says:

    I’ve only just started listening to audiobooks on a regular basis. I wasn’t anti-audio before, but I wasn’t really interested either. I used them when it was a book I simply couldn’t get through in print (like War of the Worlds, which I hated, or Silas Marner, which I liked but found too difficult to concentrate on in print), or books I couldn’t get ahold of in print, before i had an ereader and could download from gutenberg. So my audios were few and far between.

    Listening to Alan Rickman read The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy changed my mind, and since then, I’ve listened to several others and plan to continue to do so. I’m picky about them, but really enjoy them. I’ll have to check out that rental place you use. I’m not sure yet just how well the library’s selection is going to work for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I still want to get my hands on that Rickman audiobook. It sounds like absolute bliss!

      It’s weird, but I’m actually less picky about audiobooks that print books. Mostly if it seems like it might be better than drive-time radio, I’ll give it a go. I used to listen to CDs in the car, but now I listen to music on my iPod at work all day, so I like something different in the car.

  2. I can only really deal with audiobooks of books I’ve already read. Not only am I more visual than aural, but I take notes, mark down passages, and do other things you can only do with a book. I do pick them up when I like the narrator, and I might start with young adult audiobooks soon–a friend of mine just told me the audiobook for Leviathan is read by Alan Cumming, so I clearly have to pick it up.

    I am on the lookout, however, for a good The Lord of the Rings audiobook–which version did you pick up?

    • Teresa says:

      I do sometimes get frustrated that I can’t take notes or write down favorite (or nonfavorite) passages when I listen to audiobooks.

      I wish I could remember who narrated the LOTR audiobooks that I listened to. I was so new to audiobooks then that I hadn’t started paying attention to that. I do remember that the library I used then mostly had audiobooks from Recorded Books.

  3. Marie says:

    I’m still just a beginner on audiobooks. I’ve listened to two all the way through- and a bunch that I got bored with, or fell asleep to. But I’m coming around. I think printed books will always be my favorite but I’m more open to audio than I used to be. I think audio would be great for LotR though!

  4. cbjames says:

    I find it hard to concentrate on an audio book. My thoughts tend to wander after a chapter or two, even after ten minutes sometimes, and I end up missing sections of plot. But I do love short story podcasts and radio drama podcasts. There are many unabridged radio drama versions of books out there, mainly from the BBC, that are full cast dramatizations with sound effects and music.

    Those I enjoy.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve wanted to try some of those dramatizations but haven’t done it yet. I’ve been coveting the LOTR one for quite some time.

      I understand about the distraction problem. It happens to me too sometimes, but I’ve gotten better at noticing that my mind is wandering and directing my focus back to the book. But that mind-wandering is the big reason books that are too repetitive or simplistic in print sometimes end up being ok listens for me.

  5. Jenny says:

    I’m about to start having a serious commute, so maybe this will be my time to begin appreciating audiobooks. Or my time to start learning awesome new languages. :D

  6. amymckie says:

    I’m slowly getting in to audiobooks, but still have issues with them. I need the experience to get better at listening still :)

  7. Heather says:

    I’ve yet to listen to an audiobook – I have enough trouble with podcasts. (I don’t regularly listen to any podcasts, but every once an a while someone will mention a particular episode that they really liked, and I’ll give it a try.) I have a really hard time focusing on what I’m listening to – I remember one podcast where I had to start over about 5 times because I kept missing things and getting lost.

    I’m sure you’re right that experience helps us become better listeners – and I’m sure part of why I have so much trouble is that I *don’t* listen to anything other than music regularly! I don’t listen to NPR, I don’t watch television, and I do enjoy watching movies but I go through cycles with them, where sometimes I’ll watch several in a month and then I won’t watch any for months after that. (E.g. last night I watched the first movie I’ve seen since July.)

    Also, right now I have much impetus to experiment more with audiobooks or podcasts – I have a 35 minute commute but it’s on the subway, and the lines I take are uncrowded enough that I almost always have room to stand comfortably with my book. And if I’m reading a big book that’s too unwieldy for the train, I have the New Yorker to read. If I lived somewhere where I was commuting by car, I’d probably be more motivated to improve my listening skills!

    • Teresa says:

      All that totally makes sense to me. Because I drive to work reading on my commute isn’t an option, and even if it were, I have a tendency to motion sickness, which makes reading on the bus or the Metro too difficult.

  8. I don’t spend that much time in the car since I’m not working, but I usually end up downloading my audiobooks to my ipod and listening when I walk the dog — I’ll end up doing a combination of the car/walk/hard copy of a book. I also find audiobooks great for comforting rereads. I’ve listened to most of Jane Austen that way, and I wish my library had more Dickens on disc! I recently finished the audio of Bleak House for Amanda’s readalong, which I loved. (28 discs, so it took awhile!). I’ll have to look for Booksfree, maybe they have more Dickens.

    • Teresa says:

      Walking is a great time for listening. I walk for exercise and to run errands, and I love to listen then, but I do podcasts.

      I’ve thought about trying the print/audio combo, but never actually done it. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with where I was in each version of the book!

  9. Explain this to me: I can follow nonfiction audiobooks better than fiction audiobooks!

    Here’s my Sunday Salon: http://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/11/sunday-salon-war-and-poetry-and.html

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve found that to be true of me sometimes as well. I wonder if it’s because nonfiction has less of a story to it, so there are fewer “plot points” to miss. And a lot of times, if there is a story, I already know the basics of it, so I can fill in the gaps if I zone out for a bit.

  10. I haven’t really enjoyed the David Sedaris I’ve read and wondered if I might enjoy him more from listening. Based on what you say, that might be true? Something for me to think about!

    • Teresa says:

      I tried to read one of David Sedaris’s books years ago and didn’t like it much at all, but he cracks me up on audio. You might try checking out some of his stories on This American Life to see what you think. It was listening to him on that show that got me into his audiobooks.

  11. anokatony says:

    Audiobooks seem to work best with stories that have a simple dramatic plot. This is not necessarily an indication of the quality of the book. I’m listeming to a really good audiobook now “The Weekend” by Berhard Schlink. I tried listeming to “Great House” by Alison Krauss, but it didn’t work for me. Probably shorter books work better for me than longer books. Plays, Shakespeare, etc. seem to work really well for me. I do find that nearly anything I listen to on audio, I must listen to at least twice to get the full impact.

    • Teresa says:

      A strong simple plot does seem like the best thing. That would describe most of my favorite audios. If the plot is too complex, I get lost; too meditative, I get bored. I loved Great House, but I probably wouldn’t have liked it on audio either.

  12. Deb says:

    I think the reason that I don’t listen to many audiobooks is because I have a very short commute to work (about 10-15 minutes, depending on the traffic) and, like you, I listen to NPR in the morning (both at home and in the car). However, my husband (with a much longer commute) generally listens to about one book per week. I would guess that most people who listen to audiobooks listen to them to and from the workplace. After all, that drive time isn’t going anywhere, so you might as well listen to something on the way.

    When we’ve gone on long driving trips, we always take audiobooks. A couple of years ago, on a ten-hour drive to Florida, we listened to Michael York reading BRAVE NEW WORLD (that was a “re-read” for me) and he did a very good job.

    • Teresa says:

      If my commute were shorter, I probably wouldn’t bother with audiobooks, but it’s just long enough that I can manage a disc every two days or so.

      I listened to Brave New World last year (as a “reread”), and I think it was the Michael York version. Whichever it was, it was good.

  13. Frances says:

    Teresa, I still find it hard to get into audio books most of the time. I was just listening to the new Paul Auster on my commute in the mornings, and it completely turned me off reading the rest of the novel or finishing the audio. And I love the author’s work and his voice! Maybe it is something about the pacing as I am accustomed to self-pacing when I read. Maybe I am just a bad listener. :) So many great readers like yourself are enjoying more and more audio books, but I can’t get into them. One exception – children’s books.

    • Teresa says:

      It really does depend on the book, I think. There are some writers I love that I wouldn’t attempt on audio. Perhaps you could try a book you’ve been wanting to reread? I’ve also had some success with “blockbuster”/”beach read” type novels on audio (except when I wanted to skim the annoying parts in Phillipa Gregory’s books).

  14. Christy says:

    Great post! Like you, I was skeptical of audio-books, but my new longer commute (also involving D.C. traffic) spurred me to try them out. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them, and am ready to defend audio-books now.

    Not all audio books work for me, and I make sure to have a back-up audio book just in case. So far the audio-books I’ve most enjoyed have been first-person narration and British (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, P.G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves). The first-person narration works well because it’s like the person is speaking to me.

    I wouldn’t listen to audio-books anywhere but in the car. I’m a captive audience there. If traffic gets tricky, I may turn the CD off momentarily, but so far the separate acts of driving and listening to a book have meshed well.

    I too love Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Moth. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t realize you were in DC! There are a bunch of us.

      I never thought about first-person versus third-person, but I can see what you mean. And all the books you mention seem like they’d be good on audio.

      The captive audience thing is why I only listen to audiobooks in the car. I’m equally captive on my walks or when working out, but I like my podcasts for that time.

  15. Kathleen says:

    I’ve never been able to fully embrace audio as a format for my reading. I’d like to give it a try and I say I will but I always go back to reading vs. listening. Maybe when I am on vacation I will try listening to a book on my iPOD to see if I can get going with this format. I do think it would be nice to have the ability to enjoy both print and audio. I have a long commute also and could enjoy quite a few books if I listened while I drove!

    • Teresa says:

      As much as I enjoy audiobooks, I still prefer print books. If you’re looking to try it out, perhaps you could start with a reread. That was a great way for me to get used to the format.

  16. Rebecca Reid says:

    I too loved audiobooks when I had an hour commute each direction! I got through some wonderful books. I haven’t been listening to audiobooks lately. I think it’s because most weeks I don’t go on long drives. Driving 20 minutes is the max. And my preschooler is in the car, so I have found I’d rather not have a book going because it’s our time to talk.

    But that said, I do miss the multitasking of audiobooks!

    • Teresa says:

      That definitely makes sense. Much better to use that time to talk with Raisin :-)

      My current commute is just 20 minutes (thank goodness!), but it still makes a dent in my reading.

  17. Jeanne says:

    Like you, I started out listening to old, beloved favorites, and then gradually started listening to different kinds of things. My criteria for an audiobook is that it has to be well-written, because I can’t stand to spend that long with anything that’s not (I read much faster than anyone can read to me out loud).

    What I’ve found is that I can listen to books that I don’t have the sustained time to get into these days. Time in the car is inviolate; my reading time at home less so. I expect this will change as my nest empties, but at the moment, I’m a little like a kid–I can listen to books that are a bit above my present reading level!

    I found the Alan Rickman Return of the Native at my local public library…

    • Teresa says:

      It’s interesting–I’m more patient with bad writing on audio than I am in print. I guess it’s because I’m not losing valuable print-reading time to it, and sometimes the bad writing involves overexplaining and repetitiveness which at least makes the story easy to follow :-)

  18. tuulenhaiven says:

    It’s so funny that you say that things that would annoy you in print – less than awesome writing, predictability, etc. – don’t annoy you so much in audio. I’ve discovered the same thing! In fact, now that I had a 30 minute commute and have added audiobooks to my routine, I am allowing myself to listen to books that I would never read – whether they’re the blockbusters of books, or authors who’s books I can’t be seen with…etc. Great fun! And I definitely enjoy the simpler, more straightforward stories in audio. My mind drifts more than I realized when I’m driving! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one! With the more complex books I end up having to repeat sections a lot. (I’ve listened to a couple of sections of The Man Who Was Thursday three times because of my drifting mind!)

  19. Pingback: Audiobooks – not all terrible! | Reading Fuelled By Tea

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