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Listening to audio books

In recent years, listening to audio books has been something which has escaped the circle of the visually impaired and has made its way to the general public. Although I am somewhat visually impaired myself, this has got nothing to do with my inclination to like audio books, since I have no problems reading normal books in any case. In this article, I will attempt to explain why I think the concept of audio books is so marvellous and describe in what ways they have helped me towards a more relaxed and enjoyable life.

Different kinds of audio books
There are many ways of presenting fiction auditorily and not all of them count as audio books. For it to count, the primary medium has to be text, which invalidates most plays and drama in general ((which in normal cases are not considered to be books in the first place, since being published in print is seldom the goal, albeit they can be reproduced that way).

That being said, audio books come in many forms, varying greatly in artistic quality and degree of freedom. In one end of the scale, we have text-to-speech software, which simply transforms written text into sound, using a digital voice sythesiser. These books does not add anything at all to the text itself, but rather removes from it, because even if the text was meant to be read silently, reading it aloud in a bad manner will severely damage the experience. However, this might be a viable option if the source is a non-fiction one and the reading is aimed simply towards acquiring information.

In the other end, we have audio books produced by a team of actors, each having one or several characters. The text of the book is still spoken verbatim, but since the human voice is capable of transmitting much more information than printed letters, the readers greatly affect the end product. This end of the scale sometimes has the same effect as the other one in that there is a risk that the listener do not appreciate the information added by the actors. However, this is a slight risk which is worth taking, because most productions are professionally executed and generally add to the experience in a positive way.

Having covered the ends of the scale, it is time to state that I tend to avoid these extremes if I can. I get nothing out of listening to a digital voice and have more drama-like productions is so rare that it is not an issue. Most audio books are read by one author, probably with the intent of adding meaning to the text by, for instance, modulating his or her voice to match that of character currently speaking. Apart from that, focus is seldom removed from the text itself.

The benefits of listening to audio books
The main reason for listening to audio books is a practical one. Assuming that it is nice to read (or listen to) books, one quickly realises that time is a limiting factor. Counting the number of free hours during a normal week can sometimes be depressing and this is where audio books excel over printed ones.

In order to read a book visually, one needs somewhere to sit or lie, illumination, reasonable silence and most importantly, the luxury of having nothing else that has to be done. However, with audio books, this is not true. There are numerous situations in which listening to a book is possible, whereas reading a printed one is not. Here are some examples:

– Walking
– Washing dishes
– Cleaning
– Cooking

Using one’s imagination, it is easy to make the list much longer. Try to approximate the time spent on all of these activities during a week and you will probably reach a respectable amount of time (my estimation is roughly fifteen hours a week). Now, imagine that you have an Mp3 player in your pocket at all times, and as soon as you start one of these activities, you continue with your audio book, what would the result be?

Reading a book aloud takes slightly more than two minutes per page, which means roughly twelve hours for a 300-page novel. Here comes the secret of audio books, make yourself ready. You can enjoy 50 novels a year, without spending more time on reading. But wait, that is not all. By adding something to these otherwise menial tasks, they become much more enjoyable. I have never enjoyed washing dishes or cleaning, but if I have a good book to accompany me, it is alright. I am not sure which one of these benefits I think most important, so at least for me, they are about equal in value.

Where to start
Being swayed by my eloquence, you would of course like to know where to start. Sadly, I cannot help you, because I do not know what kind of literature you like. However, I can say that most narrators nowadays are fairly good and the risk of running into an incompetent one is rather low. I sugest that you pick your audio books after what you would like to read and then hope the narrator is good. If he or she is, you can always check what else has been read by the same narrator.

My all-time favourite is Nigel Planer, who has read a great number of Terry Pratchett‘s books and done it in an absolutely brilliant way. Not only is his voice enjoyable to listen to, but his skill in modulating different voices is unrivalled. If you think you like satirical fantasy, but are not acquainted with Terry Pratchett, try have a look at Pyramids. If you already know Pratchett, take any book you like, because even if the books themselves are not always good, Nigel Planer always is.

Information added
Having discussed the main reasons for listening to audio books, the time has come to digress a little bit and look at audio books in general. As I have already touched upon briefly, the reader of an oudio book adds information to the text, which was not there when the author wrote the book. This can include a number of things, but modulating his or her voice to match charaters, situation or atmosphere is very common. However, these are interpretations done by the narrator, which actually adds a layer between the consumer and the author. In most cases, this is not an issue, because a few bits of added information does not put the audio book so far away as to count as a new experience entirely.

Another thing worth bringing up is the fact that it takes at least twice as long to listen to a book compared to reading one. This means that the listener has more time to digest the information and really get into the book. Even fairly complicated novels may work nicely as audio books, because the pace is so much lower. Naturally, this might be regarded as a disadvantage as well.

Information lost
Most books are written in a linear manner, which represents no problem to the narrator, but there are exceptions to this. Take Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, for instance. Several parts of the novel utilise weird typography to convey in what way a telepathic party progresses. This is of course utterly impossible to narrate and so the information is lost. However, this is extremely rare and is thus not a very serious problem.

Furthermore, it is more convenient to reread a passage than it is to rewind and listen to it again, which makes some books unsuitable for listening. If a book uses a complicated sentence structure or is suffused with complex arguments, and the option to reread is essential, then listening to the book is probably not a good idea The problem arises fairly seldom, though, and only once or twice out of more than a hundred audio books have I felt that it would have been better to have read the book visually instead.

Listening to audio books is a powerful way to make menial tasks more attractive and to enjoy much literature that would otherwise have been missed. It might take a while to get accustomed to listening to books, but after a while, there should be no problem. I have reached a level where I can do almost anything at the same time listening, except things which have to to do with communication (writing, speaking and so forth). And even if cramming in as much literature as possible is not your goal, there are many excellent audio books out there which are simply not as good when read silently.

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  1. Martin’s avatar

    I’ve started to listen to a handful och audio books but still haven’t finished one. I get distracted to easily and miss large portions of the book. Sadly.

    With ”In most cases, this is not an issue, because a few bits of added information does not put the audio book so far away as to count as a new experience entirely” and ”there are many excellent audio books out there which are simply not as good when read silently” in mind (which is more true – it’s not a new experience entirely or there are many excellent books which are simply better than read silently?) I really think you should add something about if you read or listened the books you review. Although my experience with audio books is clearly not extensive I see (hear?) the differences and think it’s vital for how to read your reviews.


  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    It is definitely not a new experience entirely, and I do not think there is a contradiction between the two statements, since I believe something can be better (better as in more pleasant, which is perhaps what I ought to have written) without being radically different.

    As for reviews of audio books, I am not yet sure about how I want to handle it, which is the reason for my not including information about narrator, for instance. I think that the narrative might change the experience of a book, but often only very slightly, so including information just to say it is an audio book seems pointless. Then it would be more relevant to provide information about how I felt in general when I read the book, typography and what the weather is like, since they probably influence my opinion to a higher degree.

    What I have been pondering, though, is to review the narration itself, which would be more meaningful. It is perhaps not relevant when recommending books in general, but sometimes people ask me for recommendations on audio books in particular, and writing explicitly about the narrator might help them to find something they like.

    In the meantime, I have catalogued most of the books at LibraryThing (view my profile by following this link), and having the ability to tag books, it is possible to view only audio books, for instance. This is how I do when I recommend audio books.