Sunday Salon: Audiobook Alternatives

Recently I’ve become disenchanted with audiobooks–not with audiobooks as a form of experiencing a story but more with my own ability to experience a story through an audiobook. For the last several years, I’ve listened to audiobooks on my commute to and from work. It’s about a 20-minute drive, so I can get a good chunk of listening in each day. It’s been a nice way to enjoy books that I wouldn’t necessarily have time to read in print, and some books are especially well-suited to audio. (Books by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell are among my favorites.)

As much as I’ve enjoyed audiobooks in the past (and I do “count” my audiobooks as books I’ve read), I’ve been frustrated lately at the fact that the format gives me less control over the experience. I listen when I’m driving because that’s one of the only times I can pay attention adequately, but this defined amount of time forces me to settle for poor stopping and starting places. I stop reading when I reach my destination, whether there’s a natural break in the story or not. And if I get distracted lose the narrative thread, it’s difficult to pick it back up on audio. I can’t easily flip back and check character names and plot points, nor can I easily revisit passages that are important.

None of this is to say that listening to audiobooks has no value, but just to explain why I’m taking a break for them.

So what am I listening to instead? There are days when I’m content to listen to my own thoughts, but most days, I listen to podcasts. I’ve been listening to podcasts during walks and gym workouts for years, and I love them. My current favorite is Radiolab, which features quirky stories usually involving science. A recent episode focused on the digestive tract, and it was both disgusting and fascinating. I’m also a fan of This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, The Moth, Freakonomics, and On the Media.

Since I’ve started listening during my commute, I’m exploring a few new possibilities. One of these is the Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is fun because I often feel a little behind on all things pop culture, and I enjoy host Linda Holmes’s Monkey See blog at NPR. I’m just wondering whether getting all this current information about movies and TV and such will make me feel even more behind or, worse, make me feel pressured to try to squeeze in more TV and movie watching (At the cost of what? Sleep? Reading time? Blogging? Exercise? Cooking? Not giving up that stuff, so there we are.)

I’ve also started to listen to a couple of bookish podcasts. I enjoy these podcasts, but I’m not sure how devoted I’ll be to them because I fear that having too many bookish podcasts in my schedule will cause me to feel overloaded with book talk. Still, they’re worth checking out. One is The Readers, hosted by UK bloggers Simon of Savidge Reads and Gavin of Gav Reads. It’s an hourlong(ish) chat about general bookish topics and specific books Simon and Gav are reading. It’s a fun show, but I have to be in the right mood for it because the chats often meander, and they tend to cover topics that get talked about a lot on blogs I read. When I’m in the right mood, it’s charming and hilarious, but I’m not always in the right mood. They’ve just announced their summer book club with a nice mix of titles. Although I like the list, I have no definite plans to read along, so I’ll be interested to see how those conversations go for people who haven’t read the books. Another show I’ve started listening to is Books on the Nightstand, hosted by Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman of Random House. They usually open with a discussion of some general book-related news and conclude with a recommendation or two. The news discussions are interesting, and the recommendations sound good, but I haven’t read enough of them to know how similar their tastes are to mine. The show is shorter and more to the point than The Readers, so which one I prefer depends on what kind of conversation I want (and how much time I have).

When not listening to podcasts, I’m also listening to more music. I love music, but I rarely take the time to really listen to it anymore. I have it on in the background at work and sometimes at home, but I can’t tell you how many albums I’ve bought through Emusic and never really sat down and listened to with any degree of focus. What are the lyrics like? Which specific songs from the album do I like best? How does this album compare to others? I have no idea because I just pop them into iTunes and set it to shuffle. I realized just how much I’m depriving myself of last Friday when I saw one of my favorite singer-songwriters, David Wilcox, perform with a new-to-me singer-songwriter, Susan Werner. The show was great, and part of the pleasure was that we were just sitting and listening. I’m not likely to start sitting and listening to albums straight through, but I’m usually able to listen well enough in the car and on walks to get acquainted with the music.

So that’s how I’m filling the audiobook void. I’m interested in checking out some more podcasts, although I do fear overfilling my schedule. Rebecca has just posted a list of a few bookish ones she enjoys. Do you have any suggestions for good podcasts, bookish or otherwise? Or do you prefer the radio or music or audiobooks–or even silence?

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27 Responses to Sunday Salon: Audiobook Alternatives

  1. I love this post! I have a 40 minute commute to work each way (driving) and I’ve only recently started listening to audio books during that time. I find audio books pass the time quicker than music but I can only choose ‘light reads’ as I can’t give them my full attention. When I come to a busy junction, I completely miss what is going on in the story!

    • Teresa says:

      I have the same issue with busy intersections, although sometimes my mind just wanders as I’m driving. For that reason, I sometimes find books with obvious stories and unnecessary repetition are good for audio. Rereading is also great for that.

  2. Karen K. says:

    I usually have one audiobook going in the car, because the radio where I live is just dreadful, the same dreck over and over, and the news is so depressing. If it’s a book I’ve never read, I’ll have a print copy of the book at the same time, because otherwise I’d sit in the driveway to find out what happens next! It also gives me the option of reading ahead while I have lunch, though of course I then have to spend half my commute finding my place again. But it really does help me get through more books faster. Right now I’m listening to Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, which is 800 pages and 28 discs long, so it should take quite awhile. Hopefully no one else is waiting for the library’s copy of the audio because I have every intention of renewing it, probably more than once!

    • Teresa says:

      The radio here is terrible too. NPR is OK, but I listen to it as I get ready in the morning and as I fix dinner in the evening, and the stories repeat. I can take other stations for a day or two, but it’s mostly traffic reports every ten minutes, with lots of pointless chatter and maybe two songs every 30 minutes. Awful.

      I’ve thought about trying that trick with having the print book too, but I don’t think I could actively read both. There have been a couple of times that I got the print book out of the library to check a few things before reviewing.

  3. Lisa says:

    I never really connected with audiobooks. I sometimes found the sustained narration difficult to follow – my mind started to wander after a certain point. I also found some of the narrators distracting, particularly the ones who over-act the books, and I was unreasonably irritated with male narrators doing squeaky falsetttos, females doing gruff basses – rather than just reading the story. I might have done better with non-fiction books.

    There is so much noise at work (just in a regular office setting) that I find myself craving silence in the evenings, at least when I first get home. And I don’t have music or the TV on when I’m reading.

    • Teresa says:

      The narrator can make a huge difference. I like when they do something to delineate voices–I listened to a book a while ago in which the dialogue was incomprehensible because the reader just read with hardly any variation between voices. I never knew who was speaking! But I’ve heard others who went too far in the other direction, with falsettos and such.

      I don’t have the TV on when reading, but sometimes I have music going. Depends on the book and my mood. It can keep me alert.

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I’m a visual learner, not an aural one, so I’ve made audiobooks a separate feature from reviews. I just can’t go in-depth with an audiobook the same way with a print book, because I can space out and not pay attention.

    My strength training routine takes about fifty minutes two to three times a week, so I usually listen to audiobooks then. But I haven’t been listening lately; rather, I’ve been listening to funny podcasts. I’m fond of Writing Excuse, hosted by a handful of authors including Mary Robinette Kowal (!) and I’ve just become enamored with Down In Front. It’s a feature-length podcast that you can either sync up to a movie like a commentary or listen to on its own; it’s both funny (they’re a bit foul-mouthed, just a heads up) and very thoughtful. It’s a group of a few film professionals who will actually wonder how to make a bad movie good—it’s like listening to this guy for two hours.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve gotten a better sense over the years of which audio books will hold my interest and keep me from spacing out, but it is a different experience, even though I “count” it as reading.

      And thanks for the podcasts recs! I’ll look into both of those.

  5. I love audiobooks in the car (and when walking the dog), but usually end up borrowing a print copy from the library, too. That way I can continue reading at home, double check quotes, etc. Haven’t gotten into the podcast habit, but will explore some of your suggestions. Thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve borrowed the print book for checking stuff a few times (or searched the “look inside” version on Amazon) but never made a habit of it. It just rarely occurred to me.
      Hope you find some good listening!

  6. Thank you for the podcast suggestions! I’ve always struggled with audiobooks. Usually I listen to young adult titles, because I just can’t focus enough for anything heavier. I’ve been downloading them to my iphone from the library but the collection is fairly limited. I think podcasts might be better for me too. (I have about a 25-minute bus ride for my commute and I get nauseous if I try to read on the bus.) I’m going to try Radiolab and The Readers for sure. I feel like I should be listening to news, but mostly find myself turning towards lighter fare, such as Strong, Sexy, and Stylish and knitting podcasts.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m happy to share. Oddly enough, I get caught up on a lot of news through Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me because it’s a comedy quiz show about the week’s news. It’s a U.S. show but they cover some world news.

  7. Lu says:

    I’m the same way. When I was driving to work, I would listen to audiobooks for a couple weeks, then switch to music, then switch to podcasts and back to audiobooks. I really enjoyed Nancy Pearl’s book podcast and NPR has a roundup of all their bookish stories, but I can’t quite remember what it is called.

    I’m not sure when you switched themes, so I apologize if I’m a little late, but I adore it! So clean and lovely.

    • Teresa says:

      I forgot all about the NPR Books podcast (I think that was the name of it.) I used to subscribe to it, but then it seemed like I heard most of the stories when they were on, so I unsubscribed.

      I am wondering if this switch away from audiobooks will be temporary. Right now, I’m enjoying podcasts and music so much, I don’t want the books at all.

      And the theme is a couple of weeks old now. Glad to hear you like it!

  8. florinda3rs says:

    I’ve not been much for audiobooks lately either, because I’ve really gone in for podcasts. Pop Culture Haapy Hour is one of my very favorites–glad you found it! I really haven’t found a bookish podcast I stick with for more than a few listens, but I like several that focus on TV and movies.

  9. This is a great alternative. My commute is only 7 miles each way, but still I always have an audio book going in my car.

    • Teresa says:

      Some of the ones I listen to–The Moth and Radiolab Shorts–are 15 to 20 minutes, so you’d be able to get through a whole on in a day. And This American Life usually has 3 stories in an hour.

  10. Rebecca H. says:

    I’ve been listening to more music these days as well, and also the music podcast Sound Opinions, which I like quite a lot and which has introduced me to some great new music. I don’t share their tastes exactly, but every now then they hit on something really great.

    • Teresa says:

      I hadn’t thought about looking for music podcasts. I briefly tried out All Songs Considered years ago, but unsubscribed after a while. (Mostly because of time; they featured some good artists.) NPR has also had some good artists for their Tiny Desk Concerts; I wonder if those are in podcast form. Hmm…

  11. jenn aka the picky girl says:

    I just can’t get into podcasts. I’ve tried a couple, but it’s too talk radio, which has always bored me. A friend loves Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, so I’ll listen and enjoy when we’re together, but it still wouldn’t be my first choice. I do enjoy audiobooks, but my commute is now 7 minutes, so I restrict audio to gym time. It’s perfect for me because otherwise I wouldn’t stay on the elliptical but maybe 30 minutes. With an audiobook, the hour doesn’t *fly* by, but it does go a bit faster.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been an NPR nerd for years, so most of the podcasts I listen to are NPR shows that I enjoy but don’t always catch when they’re on. And a lot of them are story-based, like The Moth and This American Life, so it feels like listening to short memoirs or essays. I love them for workouts for the same reason you like audiobooks. They make the time move faster. I usually plan how long I’m going to work out and pick a show that will fit that time.

  12. I like to have an audio book in the car, but when I’m doing chores in the house I need something that doesn’t require undivided attention. For this I like listening to the book programmes on BBC Radio 4. They are available as podcasts to us in the UK. I’m not sure how many are available globally, but one I’d highly recommend that I think you should be able to listen to is the BBC World Service Book Club. They talk about classics (both modern and older) In the UK I can access it via this link. Not sure if you have access to that, but if you search for BBC World Service Book Club I’d hope you’d find it.

    • Teresa says:

      I listened to a bit of one of the BBC podcasts a while back, but it was focused on a book I wasn’t interested in, so I haven’t tried again. I like the idea of a book podcast that focuses on some older books, so I’ll take a look.

  13. Christy says:

    I’ve taken to listening to podcasts while I work (my job sometimes requires me to do things that don’t require a ton of brain power). I too love The Moth and This American Life. I also love Stuff You Missed in History Class from the Stuff You Should Know collection of podcasts. (The podcast called Stuff You Should Know is also good.)

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I was hoping to get a couple of general knowledge podcasts into my rotation, and a history one to go with all the science from Radiolab could be a good choice.

  14. Pingback: If you need a reason to walk … listen up! « Inside Out Cafe

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