During my long recovery period from eye surgery, I’ve had the chance to try a new thing: audiobooks! I’d been hearing people sing their praises for years, but they’d never fit into the pattern of my life: the only periods I had available for listening to audiobooks, I could be reading print books instead. However, it turns out that audiobooks are a huge boon for people with vision problems, especially when you have to spend 50 minutes out of every hour laying face down with your eyes closed. I’m not sure how often I’ll listen to audiobooks once I completely return to my normal lifestyle, so I figure now is the best time to reflect on my impressions.
Due to my limited sight, I chose to go with audiobooks on CD, as it was much easier to operate the physical controls of a boombox by feel than to try to mess with my phone. A friend borrowed audiobooks from the library for me, which had the added benefit of not requiring me to sign up for any online service. One downside to this was that a few of the discs had minor scratches, which led to skips and lost words, although most of them had no problems. The other downside was the relatively limited selection of fantasy and science fiction titles, which would have been a problem had I needed more than a month of entertainment, although not much, as there were plenty of mysteries and other novels to choose from.
Another issue is probably also unique to audiobooks on CD: the weird places where they cut off the tracks and the discs themselves, which makes it hard to search for a particular chapter or scene, if I missed something or am trying to get back to where I left off last. Some of the books were better about starting each new chapter at a new track, but others seemed random, even cutting off the end of a disc in the middle of a scene. One book started the next disc with the last sentence or two from the previous disc, which I liked. Almost all of the books had some message at the beginning and end of each disc, e.g., “This is the end of disc 4, please continue with disc 5.” But one had no messages at all at the start or end of the discs, even at the very beginning of the book: not even a reading of the title and author! It just started with the dialogue. And the end of each disc it just… stopped. Very confusing.
The CDs worked fine for a while. Then the COVID-19 restrictions came into full force and the library closed: no more audio CDs for Joy. Luckily by that time my sight had recovered enough that I could use my computer on high magnification and even my phone. So I signed up for free audiobooks online through the library, selecting them on my computer and listening on my phone. It was easy to set up with my library card, and of course I like that it’s free. Once I figured out the interface, I found it worked very well. I no longer have to be bothered with tracks or where discs end, and I can carry the phone wherever I want. Plus it’s great to be able to listen to the sample of the book online before borrowing it. I also like being able to easily and immediately “return” an audiobook that I’m done reading, particularly when they tell me that someone else is waiting for it. My library lets me have five audiobooks borrowed at any given time, but so far I haven’t seen any reason to have more than one or two at a time.
The only disappointment is that the online selection at my library isn’t nearly as large as it first seemed when I searched for “fantasy” books. I had hoped to listen to some of the books I currently have in my TBR shelves, but literally none of them are available as audiobooks (well, some are listed as audiobooks but have a very long wait list, with estimates of availability many weeks or months away). Also, a frustrating percentage of audiobooks are later books in a series: for instance, book 3 is available as an audiobook, but books 1 and 2 are only available as ebooks, or not at all. GRR! That said, there are plenty of other books to choose from. I can definitely recommend checking out your local library for this service!
The audiobook listening experience
I’ve often noticed that I have an easier time processing information when reading than when listening. My time with audiobooks helped clarify why: because when listening, I can’t control the rate of input. This goes both directions. When reading, I’ll often pause to think about something that I just read, whether that was an important clue to the mystery, a particularly beautiful phrase or description, or something that sparked an idea for my own writing. But it’s hard to pause with audiobooks. Even if I were to sit there with my figure on the button (which is hard to do; I’ve tried) I don’t even notice right away that my thoughts have wandered, and only belatedly realize that I’ve missed a few sentences. It’s also a problem if I misunderstand a word or term, as there’s no easy way to go back and read just that one word. It’s frustrating in the other direction as well: I can’t skip ahead to see when a long boring part is going to end, and skip over to it.
Being unable to see the words poses more problems with some books than others. I found I had problems with homonyms: if I pause for a moment to wonder if that word was “air” or “heir”, now I’ve missed the next sentence. Worse: foreign phrases! In one story, the characters spoke fluent French and German; in another, Italian. Periodically they’d read words or a whole phrase. When I’m faced with written French or even German, I can often figure out its meaning by studying it for a minute. Worst case scenario, I can look it up online. But in an audiobook, it’s read at full speed ahead—with no chance at all that I’ll catch the meaning.
I also had a harder time keeping track of names. I’m terrible with this in real life, too. I just don’t seem to have a good ear for understanding aurally. If someone introduces themselves with a name I don’t recognize, they can say it half a dozen times and I still can’t get my brain to make sense of what the sound means. So instead, I ask them to spell it, and voila! So obvious now! Of course, this doesn’t work with audiobooks. I have to imagine how to spell these names it keeps spouting, which is even harder if they’re foreign or made-up languages. You’d think this would be a big deal with epic fantasy novels, and you’d be right. But I had just as much trouble with a literary novel set in mid-century Italy. I recognized only a few of the Italian names, and had to guess at the rest. To further complicate matters, each of the several dozen characters seemed to go by at least two and up to four different names – first name, last name, title or occupation, and even multiple nicknames. Even worse than that, the two main characters’ nicknames were Lenu and Lena, so similar that I’m pretty sure the voice actor herself mixed them up sometimes.
That brings up another problem: editing the recording, or rather, the lack thereof. I totally understand how a voice actor could mess up the pronunciation of a character’s name. But doesn’t someone check that later? In the Italian story I just mentioned, the voice actor went back and forth on the best friend’s Lila’s name, usually using an “ee” sound but sometimes an “eye” sound and every once in a while, “ay”. Ack!
On the other hand, if the audiobook narrator is really good about using distinct voices for different characters, this can make it easier to keep track of who’s who.
More generally, the quality of the narrator’s voice acting varies much more and has a larger effect on my understanding and enjoyment of the story than I might have guessed. I was surprised at the mediocre quality of the narrator in the first audiobook I heard. The woman wasn’t bad, exactly, but she was no better than I’d expect the average grandmother to be, reading a bedtime story without much acting involved. Plus, she had a pronounced lisp. I thought it was such an odd choice that I asked someone to read the box to see who the narrator was – and it was the author, Madeleine l’Engle. I’m glad I asked, as I liked it better, knowing I was hearing the story from the author’s own lips. That said, this works much better when the author is a wonderful storyteller like Neil Gaiman, who did the voice acting on his audiobook for Neverwhere. It was wonderful! Gaiman not only brought even more magic and beauty to his prose, but produced unique and fascinating voices for each of the characters, especially the dastardly slimy bad guys Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar.
The two things I’ve noticed that make a good (or bad) voice actor for narration is how much they modulate their tone and how good they are at portraying various characters’ voices. One book’s narration was calm and soothing, and seemed to be trying too hard to be beautiful and “literary.” The calm narration worked fine in some passages, but made others seem long, slow, and quite dull, and there wasn’t much variation in tone for scenes that should have been filled with emotion or urgency. It was also difficult at times to tell the difference between the first-person narrator’s thoughts and dialogue, either from her or someone else.
For character voices, some voice actors don’t even seem to try to make distinctions. They are least engaging, although perhaps no worse than the ones who try and do an awful job of it. The biggest challenges seem to be characters of the other gender or children, especially when male voice actors adopt silly, unbelievable falsettos for both women and children. However, many voice actors do an excellent job. I already mentioned Neil Gaiman, who was so great that I’d happily listen to anything he narrated. For his book Anansi Boys, they got comedian/actor Lenny Henry to narrate, and he was perfect for the part: there were times that I totally forgot that a middle-aged British man was speaking, and not, for instance, an elderly Caribbean woman.
I was also impressed with the two voice actors who performed The Time Traveler’s Wife. The book alternates between first-person scenes from the two main characters, Henry and Clare. The male and female voice actors thus had to do all the same characters’ voices, both of Henry and Clare (their voices changing from childhood through middle age) and of the supporting cast, and they did an excellent job of sounding similar enough that I could tell which was which. As someone who is absolutely awful at doing accents, I was especially in awe of how well they each portrayed an older Korean woman, sounding authentic at least to my (admittedly terrible) ear.
However, another book used multiple voice actors in a way that was more confusing than engaging, mostly because the book was written in third-person limited rather than first-person. For the first third or so of the book, most of the voice narration was done by one man, but between some chapters there were short dialogue-only scenes, voiced by two men (different men, depending on which characters were talking, which was only clear by how they referred to each other). Then about a third of the way through, we switched to third-person limited focused on the sister character, and for those sections, a female voice actor was used. The voice narration kept switching back and forth like this for the rest of the book. I think the idea was supposed to be to keep things interesting, but I thought the effect was more incoherent than anything else.
I guess the short summary would be: wow, some people are much better voice actors than I could ever be!
A friend loaned me a couple audiobooks, which turned out to be abridged. Based on them only having four discs each, compared to about 8 to 12 for most other audiobooks (and 24 discs for the epic fantasy), these were seriously abridged. I suppose there must be a market for abridged books. Maybe they’re easier to get through on a road trip, for instance. Or maybe they’re aimed toward people who aren’t willing to commit time to reading a book, and would definitely not be willing to commit twice as much time to listening to the audiobook.
But for me? Nope. If I’m interested in reading a book, I’d like the whole thing, please.
Being able to listen to audiobooks is tons better than not being able to read at all. They’re an excellent option for people with vision problems, or those who have time free to listen when they can’t read, like during commutes. Although personally, I wouldn’t want to listen to audiobooks while driving: either it would distract me too much from driving and I wouldn’t be alert enough to respond quickly, or I’d be too distracted by driving and would miss key bits of the audiobook.
Overall, despite the benefits of audiobooks, I still prefer reading print books. Once my vision improves enough so I can read small print again, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever go back to audiobooks, although after this experience, I’m more likely to do so if the circumstances arose.
I’m interested in what the rest of you think about audiobooks. Do you ever listen to them? In what circumstances? What do you like and dislike about them?
Inquiring minds want to know!
For other posts in the “Me Versus” series, you might be interested in: