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
- 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
- Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumley. From Bookmooch.