Audio Books

I’ve just come to the party of audio books listeners.  I’m a bit late but, as they say, better late than never.  (I am so late that I sometimes regress and call them “books on tape,” which is weird, because I never listened to those, either.)  I‘ve never had any negative feelings about unabridged audio books.  At talks I gave, people would frequently ask me if listening to a book “counted” as reading it.  I believe it does, but I also think it’s a different kind of experience than reading something on the page.  When you are reading the print version of a novel, for example, it’s just you and the author, mano a mano, collaborating on the book.  When you add another person — the audio book reader — it changes the whole dynamic.  What the author says and how you respond to it is now mediated through the reader’s voice.  Many people I know choose their audio books by who the reader is, rather than by the topic or the genre.  “I’ll read anything Jim Dale reads,” I often hear people say.  So, yes, it is reading; and yes, too, it’s a totally different experience.

So my not taking advantage of audio books was not based on anything more than that my life didn’t provide the sort of activities that many people partake in as they listen (gardening and cooking, long commutes, etc.).  But then I realized that audio books might be a good incentive to bicycling or walking on a treadmill at the Y, or when I’m going for a walk by myself.  And so it proved.

I’m just now beginning my fourth book.  The first one I listened to was Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, but at that time I was still trying to figure out how to download from the library’s website onto my IPod Nano, so the chapters ended up out of order and the book didn’t make a lot of sense — it was as though I were listening to it under “shuffle play.”  So by about halfway through I had to regroup and find it in print and read it that way.

Then, after many emails back and forth between me and a very helpful man named Andy Hird at Overdrive, the company in Ohio that sells the downloading service to libraries, l successfully downloaded and listened to Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, which I really enjoyed.  Kate Reading, the aptly named reader, did a good job, I thought, conveying the many characters in the mystery, from a black teenager to an Oxford educated scholar.  My major feeling, though, upon finally finishing it, was how long it took me to listen to, and how much quicker it would have been had I read the print version.

My next choice was Sharyn McCrumb’s The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which is one of her series of books based on traditional Appalachian songs (they’re called her “ballad novels”).  C.M. Hébert splendidly reads this particular one.

I really loved this book, although I found it terribly sad.  The narrative alternates between the stories of two accused murderers: one in the 1990s and the other in the 1830s.  But while I was listening to it, my mind kept wondering what it looked like on the page:  What typeface was used?  Was the 1830s account printed in italics?  Did the author use quotation marks or dashes to introduce speech?  I didn’t miss turning the pages, but I did have a real desire to see the pages themselves.  Weird, isn’t it?

It won’t keep me from listening to more audio books — in fact, I’ve just downloaded another Val McDermid novel and another of McCrumb’s ballad books, The Rosewood Casket, and I’m looking forward to them both.



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26 responses to “Audio Books

  1. Sabrina Thompson

    A book that I LOVED on audio, read again in book form, and have listened to again in audio is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Since the book is written in the epistolary style, hearing the different letters read by the different (excellent) actors is a true treat.

    • nancy pearl

      You might also like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson – not sure if it’s audio, though it probably is. They were edited by the same woman and have a similar sensibility, although the setting and stories are quite different.

  2. Yvette

    I love audio books. I’ve joined which will download a book to any of four devices. I simply listen on my computer for now (while I work), though eventually I hope to figure out how to get a book into my ipod for long walks with my dog.

    I do love listening to books I’ve already read, which is my favorite thing to do with audio books. Don’t know why.

    I’m especially fond of Barbara Rosenblatt’s reading of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. They are so much fun to listen to. I also enjoy listening to Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books which are simply put: amazing.

    I’m thinking of trying JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL though I haven’t read it. Daring of me, I know. Ha.

    • Nancy Pearl

      I, too, have been rereading a lot of books on audio these days; I find that it’s good to listen to them when I’m doing needlepoint. Currently, I’ve been listening to the Terry Pratchett Discworld series (The Fifth Elephant is just wonderful) and the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold – all of which I’ve read but have enjoyed listening to them as well’

    • Nancy Pearl

      Oh, I forgot to say that I loved Jonathan Strange etc. when I read it, but haven’t talked to anyone who’s listened to it. Also, I’ve been thinking of subscribing to, but haven’t yet, so was glad to hear that you think it’s a good thing.

  3. Nancy

    I listen to audiobooks while I am working outdoors. It makes for a very enjoyable day. I’ve recently finished Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman and The Help by Kathryn Stockett; both excellent to listen to. Political commentary if read well makes an excellent listen. Unfortunately, a lot of books are not on audio and I will keep looking here for further suggestions.

  4. christine

    I discovered audio books after an eye operation when I could not comfortably read or watch tv and could listen to only so much radio.My first audio books were by Patrick O’Brien read by Mr Tull(?Patrick). I had previously read Master and Commander, HMS Surprise and Post Captain and it was fascinating to hear them read, and so very well. It gave me new insight into the characters and, by listening, I was able to concentrate on the words in a different way. I became hooked on listening while driving, especially over long distances. I have yet to discover the wonders of ipods and downloading but have every intention of doing so. Audio books are another dimension of book lust.

    • Nancy

      Absolutely. Listening to the Patrick O’Brien books made me appreciate the writing even more – I could see the framework of the books in a way I didn’t when I was reading it.

      But I am addicted to the Terry Pratchett books on audio, as well. I just listened to The Fifth Elephant and loved every minute of it. Now I’m listening to Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers and also enjoying it a lot.

  5. Er!ca

    Listening to Khaled Hosseini’s beautifully accented voice brought Afghanistan alive for me. It gave me a better sense of the humanity and compassion for them, and so I am forever grateful for audio books.

    And whenever I tried picking up and reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I could never make it past the first page. But my instinct told me that a wonderful story awaited me in there….so, I picked up the audiobook. The reader’s voice embodied Francie and told me the story my heart knew was there. Audiobooks are a blessing for this mom of two preschoolers. Ever since their births – just one year apart- I have depended on audiobooks to tell me the sweet stories I used to have time to read.

    • Nancy

      Yes, the more I listen as I pound away at the miles on my bike, the more I love them. I’m almost done with Pride and Prejudice and was tempted to ride on until I was finished, but had already done 20 miles this a.m. …

  6. Ki

    Hello Nancy,

    I am so glad that you’re partaking in audiobooks because, sadly, a huge number of the books listed in Book Lust and More Book Lust aren’t on audiobook! So, I will look forward to your picks in the future. Please keep including them!

    Law school and grad school ruined me for sitting down and reading a hard copy of a book other than a cookbook. After the years of the truly impossible slog of reading we had to do perform on a daily basis, I simply do not enjoy reading print anymore. It does change “reading”, but sometimes that’s a good thing. I tried to read the Sookie Stackhouse books in paperback and threw the first one across the room after the first page. Listening to the story, though, with the appropriate southern accent and intonations brought the stories to life. They’re still fluff, but when read out loud, they were pretty darn entertaining fluff.

    The only downside is how NetLibrary doesn’t work with MacBooks. (sigh)

    Listen on!

  7. Sarah

    Hi Nancy,

    I also had a problem with how long it takes to listen to an audio book. I found that I like to listen to kids audio books because they are usually only a few hours. When I was driving back and forth to Kent State for my master’s, I could get one done in two trips.

    I also had a similar experience with the iPod shuffling the chapters out of order. Now I have been listening primarily to Playaways. It is so easy because you do not have to download anything and the device holds your place when you stop. Plus you can speed up the narration if you want. The only thing I think they could do to improve them is to add a belt clip to the device.

    Sarah (from CCPL)

    • Nancy

      Hi Sarah – Yes, I had that same experience with the Ipod shuffling the chapters – when I was listening to Pratchett’s Fifth Elephant, but then I realized that I needed to create a playlist and drag them into it in order – that’s worked so far.

      I haven’t tried a Playaway yet.

  8. Laurie

    I find that I only enjoy poetry and humor when listening to it. There is so much that is missed on the flat of the paper in these two genres. David Sedaris reading his own work in that little squeaky voice is always a winner. I listened to The Age of Reason, the sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary and would not have finished it if I was reading it. The reader on the audio was amazing. I thought several people were actually doing the voices. So droll, so funny! Billy Collins reading his own poetry also brings it alive for me in ways I would never experience without the sound.

    • Nancy

      I think that poetry is an ideal thing to listen to (especially if it’s read well, which is not always when the poet reads his/her own work, unfortunately). Listening to poetry gives you a better sense of the sound, I think, something that’s often lost when we just focus on the meaning of the poem.

  9. Jill

    Please let me recommend George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series in the audio format. The narrator for the first three books of the series is Roy Dotrice and he is just superb.

  10. I’m usually irritated by the “rules” people try to make about reading. “I don’t DO romances/sci-fi/other genre fiction” or “I’m an adult so I don’t read books written for teens or children” or “audio books don’t really ‘count’ as reading”. Of course everybody has their own tastes, but why limit yourself unnecessarily, and why oh WHY would you look down on what others enjoy reading? It baffles me.

    I listened to an audiobook recently while I was painting my foyer, and I became so absorbed in it that I wanted to go ahead and paint the rest of my house! It was The Manual of Detection by Jebediah Berry, and Pete Larkin does an amazing job of reading. It’s a sort of crime noir whodunnit, and not the sort of thing I ever would have picked up on my own, but I received an early reviewers audio copy from Librarything. I was so spellbound that it was disconcerting to finish up and come back to earth!

  11. Deb Evers

    As a school librarian, I had this conversation often with teachers who did not want to count audio books as book report books. The audio format opens up some inaccessible books for anyone who is a poor reader. Often, students would come in and check out the “old fashioned” book after finishing the audio book.

    Personally, I have trouble remembering which books I “read” and which I listened to. So I guess, for me it’s a moot point. I love not having to have my name on a hold list and being able to download the popular books from the library…when I want to read them.

  12. poetreearborist

    The appeal of audio books for me is in going back to the comfort of the story-teller. I remember how much I loved every night my mother read to me when I was a little girl. And now, one of the great joys in having a daughter is reading to her. She is 4 and learning the basics of reading and I see a future great reader in there. Some day she’ll go off to adventure with books on her own.

  13. Kim

    I started in with audiobooks when I had long commutes to work. I found myself totally immersed when I liked the reader. The reader is so important! If I dislike the voice, I stop listening. One great audiobook is Julie Andrews’ Home. She reads it and it’s like having Julie sitting in the car with you. Her voice, of course, is delightful, and there even is a little singing between chapters. Plus it’s an excellent autobiography. I always listen to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries because the reader Lisette Lecat is outstanding. I enjoyed Nancy’s essay on audiobooks. I, too, find myself sometimes wondering about the look of the book, and in the case of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close you miss alot when you listen and not read it because so much is going on in the print version. But I enjoyed that audiobook very much, too, because of the great reader. Aren’t we lucky we have different ways of doing things?

  14. Gibson

    First, I must say that I listen to you (and NPR book reviews) driving to work, but I could read (woops, listen to a book) waiting for your next podcast. But the real point of this comment, other than to rave about you and tell you I can’t count the books I have read and enjoyed only because I heard of them via your podcast, (back to the reason), is you are the first person (other than me) who admits to enjoying looking at the typeface used and trying to see if there is a connection with the story, or if I just like the typeface and try to find a reason to download the font and use it myself.
    May you continue to review books and tell me about them forever.
    p.s. Thanks to KUOW for the podcast. It is the only time I listen to them (I’m in VA) but it is sufficient for me to support them.

  15. Lea Ann

    When I first retired (19 yrs. ago) and was doing craft “stuff” I listened to books on tape, but didn’t do so for long. I’m still being dragged into this era. Have no ipod, etc. I walk with either 2 big dogs or my husband or just the dogs and enjoy chatting w/folks I meet. Same when I’m gardening. Hooray for those who can master the technique of electronic listening. I’m not one of them, so shall continue to enjoy books on real pages.

  16. ScienceGeek

    I started getting into audiobooks about three years ago when I realized that my library has a large selection of audiobooks available for download. I love listening to them when I am exercising, driving to work, and at work while doing mindless activities. I think that there are some advantages to listening to audiobooks vs. reading (although I still prefer reading a printed page over all). I like listening to audiobooks recorded from books written by foreign authors, as the narrators tend to have accents representing the area that the book is based in. Also, there is the advantage of added music, full cast readers, and sound effects which can really make the experience quite different than just reading the book. I would highly recommend Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood which is has excellent narrators and added songs which in the book appear only as text. I do always find myself wondering if I had read the book myself if I would be getting a completely different view point of the story.

  17. You might want to check out some of the short fiction podcasts. An audio novel requires 10 to 30 hours of commitment but a short story on audio only 10 to 60 minutes.

    There’s some great science fiction ones. The new Yorker offers a good lit fiction one. Still haven’t found a general or crime fiction one I like.

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