How I learnt to love audiobooks

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I always thought audiobooks weren’t for me. Recently though, I have struggled to read as much as I used to, especially during the week. I am not sure whether it’s my eyes or my brain that are refusing to cooperate, but it’s definitely something to do with spending all day in front of a computer screen.

I still want the immersive experience of reading a book – and not having it feels like a terrible loss –  but I feel a visceral dread of chewing through the paragraphs on a page. So I decided to look again at audiobooks and now have a book-a-week habit!

These were the qualms I had and how I (mostly) overcame them.

Cost

I used to look at the prices on Amazon and get palpitations.

However, I eventually realised that Amazon price single audiobooks so high because they don’t want you to buy them. They want to tie you into a subscription with Amazon-owned Audible. They start at £7.99 for one credit per month (which you can spend on any book). Once I got the bug, I decided to go for an annual package (24 credits for £109.99). This works out at £4.58 per book. Other retailers are available. I’ve written a separate post on where to get subscription, cheap and free audiobooks.

I also get free audiobooks from my local library via Overdrive and public domain audiobooks through Librivox, as well as the occasional free or discounted book from Audible.

Choice and availability

Only a few years ago, the range of audiobooks was pretty limited. Even if the book I wanted was available, it was often abridged, expensive and came on CD (or even cassette!).

However, changes in technology mean that books are cheaper to produce and can be sold at lower prices. Even indie authors on a limited budget are able to produce good quality audiobooks.

There is much more choice and my Audible subscription allows me to return any book for any reason at any time. This has made me more inclined to take a chance on new authors and titles.

Three’s a crowd

Reading is a very intimate experience. It’s just you and the book’s inimitable whisper. A narrator can feel like an intruder, breaking the spell if their interpretation is different from yours.

Sometimes I still feel that a narrator doesn’t sound right for a particular book, in which case I return it. But what has surprised me is that I’ve actually fallen in love with certain narrators. (Audible are clearly aware of this phenomenon as they run promotions based on popular narrators.) All I wanted from a narrator was for them not to get in the way, but the best ones actually enhance your enjoyment of the book, bringing out the rhythm of the prose, the tempo of the story, the voice of the characters.

Speed and sleep

I’m a fast reader and one of the things that used to frustrate me about listening to live readings is that they’re so slow. I also find that attentive listening is surprisingly tiring and can make me nod off.

Fortunately most audiobook apps address these two key features. I don’t suppose you can ever listen as fast as you can read, but you can adjust the narrator’s speed – I usually go to 1.25, if they’re very slow I go to 1.5. The sleep function is brilliant – Audible and Librivox have an ‘end of chapter’ option, though Overdrive doesn’t, or you can set the playback to stop after a specific amount of time. Most also have a short rewind function (between 15 and 30 seconds) if you’ve misheard or been momentarily distracted.

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Seeing the words on the page

There’s something about how prose looks that matters. I like the shape, the patterns on the page and the way it imprints on your brain. My French teacher at school used to teach us words without letting us see them. His intentions were good – he didn’t want people to Anglicise the pronunciation – but for me the word wouldn’t stay in my head until I had seen it.

Obviously you don’t get that with audio. And you can’t skim-read and it’s not searchable like a Kindle book (and with a physical book you can at least flick through the pages, which is quicker than the audio equivalent).

I’ve found that for reading for pleasure, and for reviewing, audio is fine. However, if I were doing serious study of a book, or it was a book of poetry where layout was integral to the enjoyment of it, I think I would buy the book as well.

Cheating?

Listening to a book feels luxurious, like somebody is pouring a novel straight into my brain with no effort required by me. Perhaps I feel a little guilty! But it’s such a relief to me to have got my reading level up again and the respite means I feel willing and able to read a book with my eyes most weekends.

14 Comments

  1. I have also taken to audiobooks this year and like you I have taken advantage of the twenty-four over the year subscription that Audible offer. I think it’s a real bargain. Mostly I listen in the car or when doing household tasks (I’ve just had one on while doing the ironing) anywhere, really, where I feel I would otherwise be wasting time. I also agree about narrators. I have developed a few new favourites but will very often buy something an actor I have known and loved on stage is narrating. Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson are superb.

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  2. This is an interesting post! I’ve never been able to get into audiobooks for all the reasons you mentioned – mainly that I’m a fast reader so the slow pace of them puts me off. But that’s a good point about adjusting the speed. It’s nice to think I may be able to train myself to listen to audiobooks one day… I have a really long commute to work so if I could spend that time listening to audiobooks I’d feel more productive.

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  3. Interesting what you say about how you converted to audio, even if much of it won’t apply to me. I’ve often wondered why I’ve been reluctant to listen to radio plays/dramatisations unless they’re short, and by extension reluctant to sample audiobooks. I think being on the autistic spectrum may account for it; being a classically trained musician I think I’m also often over-sensitive to things that could distract me from text, sub-text and meaning, and listening to a narrator — however good — can mean my mind wanders off into incidentals like delivery, tone and pace.

    Having said all that I’m glad audio exists and that there are so many ways to enjoy a narrative!

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  4. I read your post with interest. I have a book review blog where I recount my progress with reading a book a week. Due to a long drive I chose an audio book on one week which led to a bit of a debate on whether audio-books counted! I think they do! Glad you’re enjoying your audio books too!!

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  5. You’ve made me want to question why I don’t seem able to get into audio books. It’s not just that I don’t drive that much, but it may just be practical, to do with the equipment. But you raise some very useful points about the relationship between the reader and the book, with your own thoughtful responses. Thank you. Very useful.
    Caroline

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    1. I know some people like to listen to audiobooks while doing other things (like driving) but I prefer to give them my full attention, like I would with any other (since in my case they’re a replacement, rather than an addition, to normal reading). I don’t drive but I think if I listened while, say, doing housework, my mind would wander…I usually listen to non-fiction podcasts while doing chores, they don’t need the same level of engagement.

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