Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading experiences: audiobooks

In the past few years, my reading experiences have broadened to regularly include graphic novels, ebooks, and audiobooks. As someone who can't even remember not knowing how to read, and who gets twitchy when I don't have a book in hand, this feels like a substantial shift. How did it come about? Can stories in different formats have the same effect on me? And how might these new formats change my reading habits?

So I'd like to start a brief series exploring some of these (mostly unanswered!) questions. I'll start with audiobooks, since I've been experimenting with them longer, and feel more certain of my opinions. Plus, I'm still turning over in my mind the suspenseful, romantic, and twisty-turny audiobook of Vicky Alvear Schecter's Cleopatra's Moon, which I just finished (you can read my initial review here). Next week I'll try and gather my thoughts to talk about my latest toy: my Nook.

Thanks to my library's free downloadable audiobook service, and Marie Louise Jensen's lovely, self-narrated audiobook of Between Two Seas, followed by the brilliantly produced (and also free, I'm such a cheapskate!) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I've become quite an audiobook lover, and a paying member of Audible.com (see, freebies DO work!).

It feels rather ironic, as I spend an afternoon a week tutoring children with reading difficulties. I often wonder if they'd call this sort of reading cheating (though of course, I've already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt my ability to read fluently!). It sometimes feels a bit like cheating. I can lie back in bed and let a masterful narrator read to me as I fall asleep. Or I can go for long walks and bring my reading along to entertain me. Reading AND exercise--love it! Audiobooks are also perfect travel companions; my iPod is pocket-sized, and enables me to tune out the noise around me, the never-ending airport announcements or giggling girls, and listen to a story. Actually, I enjoy audiobooks so much, I've begun to suspect that I'm more likely to fall in love with a book if I listen to it.

Of course there are downsides. Like the mad-scramble when I realize I just missed an important airport announcement. Or when my husband tries to say something to me, and I fiddle with waking my iPod from sleep mode, typing in my password, then hitting pause. And I discovered early in my working career that I can't listen to an audiobook and drive. Thankfully my current lifestyle mostly involves public transportation and my own two feet!

And audiobooks aren't made for flipping. I can't re-read my favorite scene, unless I want to spend forever jumping from chapter to chapter, fast forwarding and pausing, to search for it. Likewise, if I forgot a character, there's no easy way to go back and figure out when he first showed up. I also can't go forward; I can't read the acknowledgments first (a guilty pleasure for this book nerd), and if there's useful supplementary material (like a glossary of character names or foreign words), there's no easy to way to jump to it--if it's even narrated at all. However, Cleopatra's Moon had a pdf glossary available to download, to which I frequently referred.

Also, authors don't often write with audiobooks in mind. Sometimes what is obvious in the text is less obvious aurally. In first person narrations, it's often difficult to distinguish between thoughts in quotation marks and thoughts that are left unsaid. Also, while all audiobook narrators pause between section and chapter breaks, sometimes the pause is too short to be obvious. Cleopatra's Moon had atmospheric music between chapter breaks, which provided a perfect opportunity to pause the narration for snacks or hubby's conversation, but the repetition of the melody became tiring towards the end of the novel. I've also struggled with audiobooks with numerous characters and one poor narrator trying to voice everyone, or characters with complicated or too similar names that are difficult to keep straight without any visual reference (like Ana vs Anya). Both Sara Zarr's How to Save A Life (see my review here) and Kathryn Stockett's The Help utilized multiple narrators, which made the stories easier to follow (and more enjoyable--like a movie unfolding in front of me).

Finally, I don't know whether to class this as a plus or a minus, but audiobooks take longer to consume than regular books. On one hand, that means a longer, more immersive experience. And to be honest, especially since purchased audiobooks are more expensive than paperbacks, length is often a plus in my mind. However, the time spent listening cuts into time I could spend reading other books, and means re-reading an audiobook is less likely (though I DID re-read the entirety to How to Save A Life!).

Audiobooks have wormed their way into my reading experience. Audible isn't especially cheap, but I haven't been able to pull myself away from my subscription either. As I traveled home from London on the train this past weekend, hands clenched in my lap as I eagerly awaited Cleopatra Selene's destiny, I couldn't have been more content.

Speaking of London, Thursday I'll post my thoughts on the AMAZING Matilda: The Musical, which I was lucky enough to catch Saturday night. In the meantime: are you an audiobook lover? What have been your experiences (good and bad) with audiobooks?

14 comments:

  1. OK Anne, I'll weigh in on this one...I love audiobooks when I'm needing a distraction. Like when I'm on a train, or out for a long run. However when I want to read I want to read, not listen to someone else read. For me they are drastically different experiences.

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    1. That's really fascinating, Janet! I wonder what the difference is for you. Is it frustration with the pace? Or the voice not being how you imagined it? Or the physical experience of reading?

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  2. I can't find the time to listen to an audio book. My husband and daughter won't stay quiet long enough. ;)

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    1. Hah! I can so easily imagine that! I do have to warn my husband before I plug into my stories. ;)

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  3. Anne, I never thought about the pace, but I think you might have something there.

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    1. The first audiobook I ever remember listening to was Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, and I was really frustrated with how slowly it unfolded. Perhaps I'm helped in listening to audiobooks by listening mainly to children's books? Interesting to think about.

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  4. I used to think of audio books were good for when I'm driving, and if it's a very good book this is NOT good idea…oops! (I discovered.) If it's not a good book- why am I listening?
    Also- I prefer not to get text from a definitive voice- I'd rather let my head make its own...
    This ^ is my explanation for why they haven't worked for me. I'm glad they exist for the seeing-impaired.

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    1. I can see that. I listened to Holly Black's White Cat on audiobook, and while it was a famous actor doing the voice, I really struggled with his characterization and found it harder to get absorbed in the story.

      Yes, no driving with audiobooks! Eek! ;)

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  5. Audiobooks were indispensable for us when our kids were little. We had The Hobbit & LOTR on tapes for them, and almost all of Dick King Smith's Sophie series, plus many other children's books. On long car trips, or when they were ill, we would put on the audiobooks and have instant peace. If we had more time to arrange it, we'd probably listen to more audiobooks ourselves, but we're too busy with other things and (I suspect) too stick in our ways. Good analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of audiobooks vs the old-fashioned kind.

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    1. I can see how they would be such a great way for the whole family to enjoy a story, Mary, especially on long car rides! It does take a bit of searching and preparation to get audiobooks, but I'm so glad I stumbled onto them.

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  6. URGH! 'stuck' in our ways. Hate those typos...

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    1. Perhaps stick in your ways is rather like being a "stick in the mud"? It made sense to me! ;)

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  7. Like MaryWitzl, audiobooks have been a staple for our kids - not just for entertainment but for getting in school reading assignments. Like many parents, we spend a large chunk of time in the car so having an audiobook to plug in is great. Plus, it gives our family a lot of good conversations since we are all "reading" a book together.

    On a personal level, I find a good audiobook hypnotic. Like you wrote above, they can take longer so when I'm in the grips of a master storyteller then I will not turn the thing off! Plus, the voice of the character comes alive very much like a movie, but better, because I get to use my own imagination. I understand why many older people prefer radio to television.

    By the way, years ago, I interviewed a professor about teaching patience to children and he said one of the best ways is to have them listen to audiobooks because it combines imagination and listening skills plus they can't race to the end. So those negatives you mentioned -- they're building patience within you. :)

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    1. Ohhh, so glad to hear your lucky children have gotten audiobooks, too! I've been thinking how nice it would be for a family to "share" a story in that way.

      Yes! I've been known to get home after listening to my audiobook and to keep listening while I unload groceries, clean the house, start dinner... I don't want it to stop! And you're absolutely right about the imagination. I had hardly thought of that, but I do have complete visuals in my head for all the stories I've heard on audiobook.

      I can completely see that about audiobooks building patience. And goodness knows I could use a bit more!

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