Audiobooks – reading with the ears

Posted: September 26, 2013 in reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

Last week was the first time in ages that I’ve listened to a whole audiobook. My iphone is usually swamped with podcasts, and I like a wide variety of music. But I had lots of driving to do – Cornwall to Stockport is a loooooooong way – so some substantial listening seemed a good idea.

By happy coincidence, my local library had an audio version of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, which was already on my to-read list. I also picked up Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, because if you’re going to listen to a random book it might as well be a classic.

From the start, this made for a different driving experience. My usual car habit is to listen to rock that was new when I was young – when your favourite bands have broken up, reformed and done a few reunion tours, you know you’re not ‘down with the kids’, but Superunknown is still an awesome album. But it’s hard to headbang to an audiobook, and they took more attention. Not so much that I was a hazard on the road, but to the point where driving soon achieved a trance-like quality, reflexes doing a lot of the work, the part of my brain that listens to the satnav barely even a conscious thought.

Listening rather than reading affected the pace at which I consumed the books. I think that, for the literary purist, this is an advantage of audio. Readers can’t skim over the bits that are slow or bore them. Every word is a beat in the ‘reading’ experience. It’s a slower experience, partly because of this but also because reading out loud takes longer than reading in your head.

One side effect I’d not considered before is the little pleasures you lose. You don’t get the feel of how many pages you have left, and counting down CDs and tracks isn’t quite the same. You don’t get the brief, anticipatory pause of turning the page.

In exchange you get to listen to a voice actor, a professional performer of words, and that’s interesting in itself. I imagine that good voice actors are often forgotten by their listeners, as their voices carry the texture of the story, heightening the author’s work rather than drawing attention to themselves. Certainly I had a lot of that while listening to Rivers of London, but when I remembered to pay attention I enjoyed the reader’s voice, his firm but friendly tone, the use of pauses and emphasis.

Rivers of London worked well as an audiobook. The narrator – I forgot to make a note of his name – fitted well with the tone of the book and its point of view character. A bit of a modern London accent, nothing over-done or drifting into comedy cockney. I was engaged and enlivened both by his voice and the story, and it kept me going for miles. This may explain why I enjoyed this book more than many of my friends – SiC’s comment yesterday seems pretty representative.

The City and the Stars was another matter entirely. It’s written in an old-fashioned, expository style. The voice was older and less lively. The whole tone of the experience was soporific. Struggling to stay alert, I gave up after half an hour and went back to growling along with Soundgarden.

It’s not that this was a bad book. I haven’t got far enough to judge that yet. But the experience of listening rather reading accentuated its flat emotional tone, and it turns out that, when trying to stay alert, that’s a bad thing.

I’m pretty much converted back to audiobooks. They’re a good way to consume books while doing other things. I’ll probably even finish The City and the Stars, as a bit of restful entertainment while I do chores in the evening. But it’s interesting to notice how the format changes the reading experience. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just… different.

What do the rest of you think? Do you listen to a lot of audiobooks? Have you found that some work and some don’t? Which ones do you particularly recommend?

  1. I’ve listened to some audio books. It is different, but I find it enjoyable. As you say, the best narrators don’t get noticed.

    I’d recommend any John le Carré read by Michael Jayston. They’re good stories, and he’s both a good narrator and a good match to the stories.

    • Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll keep an eye out for them. Out of interest, what makes Jayston a particularly good match for these stories?

      • I have to admit that I’ve never read any le Carré, only listened to audio books of his, all of which have been narrated by Jayston. That may have influenced my opinion, of course.

        Jayston’s voice just seems to fit, to my mind. He has a deep voice, and it has some gravitas, which I think fits with the tone of the story.

  2. everwalker says:

    For driving (or in my case, being driven), I used to put on a lot of Pratchett in audio form, read by Tony Robinson and they work brilliantly. In general, though, I prefer to stick to the page. The introduction of a third party into the story-telling tends to subtly change the story for me. I no longer have complete control, not just of pace but also of interpretation and characterisation, and I prefer for my imagination to handle these things rather than an interpreter’s.

    • Robinson is an awesome fit for Pratchett. I think it’s something in that irreverent but not over-pushy style of humour – even after pausing for thought, I’m having trouble describing it, but I feel like they somehow fit a similar niche.

      That point about control’s an interesting one – not only is the writer losing some control over audience perception of their characters, but the reader loses some control over the experience. Given what a basic human drive the desire for control is, this has got me wondering how it fits into reading. Will probably blog about that once I’ve considered it some more, but I’d be interested if you have any thoughts on the subject.

      • everwalker says:

        I’ve accepted that the writer loses control of their creation as soon as the reader gets hold of it, simply because the reader’s perception will never be identical to the writer’s vision. In a way, I think that’s part of writing and adds greater depth to the story. The problem with interposing a third party interpreter into the mix is that it removes (or at least seriously hampers) the reader’s ability to perceive the writer’s work in their own way. You get one interpretation of the story handed to an audience of twenty, instead of twenty people independently interpreting it for themselves. It’s much easier for the reader not to engage brain if an interpretation is spoon-fed.

        I don’t know, maybe I’m being overly romantic about this, but I very much like the idea of a silent dialogue between writer and individual reader. Turning it from a dialogue into a public lecture feels less interesting and less imaginative.

        • It definitely seems a romantic view, though I wouldn’t say over romantic – why write if there’s no romance in your soul? (Insert Dan Brown joke here)

          As for the brain engagement thing, I’m going to have to go away and think about that, which will at least increase my brain engagement with my recent audiobook listening!

  3. […] Audiobooks – reading with the ears ( […]

  4. I used to use audio books when driving a long way alone. The BBC’s “The Lord of the Rings” got me to and from Cornwall for the eclipse party. I agree there is a danger of putting too much attention into the story. These days, I rarely have a lengthy drive without a passenger so the only audio book I have used recently is “How to Train Your Dragon” (chosen because I love David Tennant’s voice, I like dragon stories and I knew my passenger would enjoy “the hairy scary librarian” character). A real favorite for in-car listening is Richard Burton’s historic reading of “Under Milk Wood”. I have a lot of Blake’s7 audio material I need to find time to listen to, but I only manage to listen at home if unwell. If I have to pick something to ensure I stay alert, I pick classic pop that I sing along to as I drive.

    • I love the BBC Lord of the Rings – just the intro to it takes me back to my childhood.

      Audiobooks do seem to be a solo driving thing – the only exception for me is when Mrs K and I are on a long drive and pick something that we’ll enjoy together. Otherwise it feels unsociable somehow, even though you’re sharing the experience.

  5. Another recommendation: Downpour have Red Storm Rising for $19.50 (about £12). For just over 31 hours of classic Clancy, I think that’s an absolute bargain 🙂 They also have an abridged version for $8.95, but it’s only just over 2 hours long, so they must have been pretty brutal in chopping stuff out.

    This link will show you both:

    • Ooh, thanks for the recommendation. And I have to say, creating an abridged version of Red Storm Rising surely misses the whole point of Red Storm Rising!

      • I don’t have an issue with abridged versions of anything per se, but they’ve ripped out roughly one page in every twenty, and I don’t think you can do that without losing a lot of what made Red Storm Rising so good.

        • That’s pretty much my view as well. Abridging’s fine, but it’s the wide variety of perspectives and events that make Red Storm Rising evocative.

          • Yes, exactly. I got my numbers the wrong way around earlier, I should have said they’ve kept roughly one page in every twenty. According to Amazon, the paperback is 832 pages – the abridged audiobook is equivalent to about 60 pages. I shudder to think how much detail and richness has been lost.

  6. […] Audiobooks – reading with the ears ( […]

  7. […] reasons I’m not likely to re-read Frankenstein are the same reasons why I gave up on listening to an Arthur C Clarke book – the writing style just isn’t as engaging as most modern writing. Those old books just […]

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