Listening as Reading: My Experience with Audiobooks

This isn’t my typical post about science fiction, fantasy, or video games, but I thought I’d share my experience with audiobooks. I’d still count that as a geeky interest, right?

About a year and a half ago, I started driving to work instead of taking public transportation, and to entertain myself on the commute, I began listening to audiobooks from Audible.

While the narrators’ voices took some getting used too — and listening feels quite different than reading — I came to love audiobooks not only for the entertainment value, but because it made me feel like a reader again. I went from reading maybe an hour a week to over an hour a day, and I polished off a novel a week for a while. The past year, my commute has been a little shorter — maybe an hour and 15 minutes a day — but I still manage to read a couple of books a month through Audible.

Some may say that listening to a book instead of reading it visually is cheating, but I don’t feel that way at all. Sure, when you read a book, you have more freedom to re-read paragraphs that you didn’t quite catch, go back to look something up from earlier in the book, and imagine what characters sound like and how a punch line might go in a joke. When you listen to the audio version, the narrator does a lot of the “work” for you there, which can be a delight when they are talented — or a distraction, an annoyance, or just a shame if they pull it off poorly.

However, listening to an audiobook requires a lot of concentration. It’s safe to listen while I’m driving, but it’s actually easier for your mind to wander when you’re listening to a book versus reading. That’s why I actually prefer listening when I’m actively driving — it’s the perfect combination. Whereas once, when I listened to an audiobook while sitting on a long bus trip… I fell asleep.

I also believe the point of reading something that’s been written is to ingest the story or the facts, the way things are phrased, the characters, the emotions, the plot beats. I love to write my own fiction, and I would be happy for people to listen to an audiobook of it — provided I also liked the way it was narrated, of course!

lat_handmaidaudio042317_19134917_8col.jpgAudiobooks can be really fun when the narrator does a good job. I’ve listened to some books, like Dune by Frank Herbert, that have an entire cast taking over different roles for pivotal scenes. I’ve also listened to books where authors do voices for different characters, including accents. These can be cheesy at times, but also endearing. For example, I listened to 12 books in J.D. Robb’s In Death mystery series, and I came to adore the characters and recognize them by the way narrator Susan Ericksen voices each of them. There are also just some knockout performances, like the introspective narration of Claire Danes reading The Handmaid’s Tale — she reads in a straightforward tone that matches the book’s somber style, yet also brings author Margaret Atwood’s poetic turns of phrase to life.

You can tell when a narrator loves what they’re reading. I’ve come to appreciate a good performance, but I also enjoy the feeling of reading along with someone else who loves the material. That’s what a good narrator achieves.

That’s why I’m very selective about which books I purchase as audiobooks. There have been a couple I tried to listen to, but because the narrator sounded so mismatched to the material — or, in one case, just sounded like an endearing but extremely boring grandpa telling an old story — I switched to reading on my Kindle instead. I usually am listening to one book through Audible while reading a second one on my Kindle, so I can enjoy both forms of reading. I always finish the Audible books much faster, because I am multi-tasking on my commute!

I also occasionally use the Whispersync feature, which lets you purchase a Kindle book for a discount after you buy it on Audible — and then you can switch between reading and listening as you please. That was perfect for me when I had jury duty this month, as I went from driving to work with Audible every day to a week of public transport and sitting outside the courtroom with my Kindle. I could keep up with my book just the same.

If you’re interested in audiobooks, some of my recommendations from Audible would be:

  • The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski, narrated with great energy (and an appropriate British accent) by Peter Kenny
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (if you’re looking for great non-fiction), narrated by Derek Perkins, which is my current Whispersync pick
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (more great non-fiction), written and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson who is always awesome
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes, as it’s by far the best audiobook I’ve ever read (and listening actually fits the format of the book, which is supposed to be a series of recorded tapes)

I’m still listening all the time and will recommend more audiobooks as I discover them, on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, for anyone interested. I’d love to hear your recommendations too!

— Ashley

8 thoughts on “Listening as Reading: My Experience with Audiobooks”

  1. I’ve tried audiobooks, but I really don’t like them. I just feel like I can read the book sooo much faster. I am a fast reader, though, so maybe it’s just me. I really wish I could like them: hands-free is nice occasionally.

  2. There are really people who think audiobooks are cheating? I never would have imagined that.

    I don’t listen to them myself, though I have dabbled in audio dramas here or there. Blizzard’s put out a few to tie into WoW, and TSW did a whole event around audio dramas, with an in-game item that you let you listen to them whenever you want. Listened to the famous old War of the Worlds broadcast that way.

    I also co-wrote and produced a series of short audio dramas (“podbooks,” we called them) about ten years ago, although actually most of the real work was done by other people. I just got most of the credit for reasons I’ll never understand. Star Trek fan fic. They’re still out there… somewhere.

    1. Oh that’s awesome you produced audio dramas! And Star Trek fan fic? That sounds amazing. You have to send me a link if you know where they are. I haven’t listened to a lot of audio dramas, although my fiance listened to some Alien ones that bridged the gap between the Alien books, I believe. That sounded kind of interesting. I like the idea of a cast reading something, instead of a single narrator, just because it cuts down on the cheesiness of one person doing different voices!

      1. Yeah the first audio drama WoW did had the narrator doing all the voices, even the females. That was… strange. Though honestly he did make a surprisingly good Maiev. The next one had a full cast, though it was still a little odd because it wasn’t the same actors as in the game. Suddenly, Alleria is British!

        I’m trying to track down those podbooks. The links seem to have broken, but I’m still in touch with one of the other guys who worked on it, and he’s looking into it. I’ll let you know if he gets it working. It was an adaptation of the first few installments of a long-running fan fic series I orchestrated, Dispatches from the Romulan War. Told the story of the Romulan War through a series of faux news articles from in-universe agencies.

          1. Good news! He got them working: http://tupub-books.blogspot.ca/2007/12/dispatches-from-romulan-war-audio.html

            I wrote roughly half of these. I know the Vulcan one is mine, anyway. I’m credited on the first two, but I didn’t actually contribute much to those.

            Also, if you’re curious, this is the full series (the podbooks only cover the beginning): http://www.adastrafanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=79 The end notes on the articles list who wrote each one. Most are mine, but we did get some other contributors.

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