Adventures in Audio

If you’d asked me about audiobooks about three years ago, I would have said (more or less): I understand that some people enjoy them, but they’re definitely not for me.

headphones-152341_1280I now officially eat my words. (Yum, yum)

Maybe it’s because I was never read to as a child… but I’ve always associated listening to stories with boredom and/or falling asleep. When I used to attend summer camp eons ago in my youth, our counselors would read to us at night after lights-out, and I never did manage to stay awake until the end of the story.

But then, as an adult, I started meeting people who swore by audiobooks, and I could see the appeal. For example, a doctor I know described listening to Lord of the Rings on his daily commutes between the two cities where he practiced. Another friend only allowed himself to listen to A Song of Ice and Fire while on the treadmill — and ended up getting in great shape as a result! Hmmm. Might work for me, perhaps?

Well, I never did follow through on my resolve to work out more with audiobooks as an incentive. But I have started listening to books in the last two years, and I’m hooked!

My first attempt was a big fail. I got a book that I’d been wanting to read and decided to listen to it while walking. Maybe it was the narrator (he was kind of drone-y), but I could not keep my attention on the book no matter how hard I tried. I’d be walking along, listening to the story, and all of a sudden — hey, seagull! Look, crack in the sidewalk! I’d realize that I had missed minutes of the narration because I just couldn’t concentrate. I was pretty amazed to discover, when I picked up the hard copy of the same book, that what felt like a massive amount of story that I’d heard only added up to about ten pages. I ended up loving the book itself, but the audiobook was a complete disaster.

Cue my Outlander obsession a short time later, and I thought I’d give audio another try. This time, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, so I decided to listen to books I’d already read, and since the  community seems to be wild about Davina Porter’s narration, Outlander seemed like a good place to start.

audio imageSuccess! I was completely sucked into the audiobook, which I listened to during my daily drives back and forth to work and my kid’s school… and soon I found myself looking for excuses to keep driving, or even circling the block one extra time so I could finish the scene or chapter before turning it off for the day.

Since that experience, I’ve been convinced that audiobooks are the way to go, at least while in the car or while on my daily walks, but that they’d only work for me if I’d already read the books once before. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about momentary distractions (like while trying to avoid suddenly swerving drivers or fighting to find a parking spot), and could just enjoy experiencing a story I already loved through a new medium.

I found that most of the time, the audiobooks enhanced the overall story for me — when presented by a talented narrator. I mostly loved Davina Porter’s version of the Outlander books (I’ve now listened to 5 of the 8 books, each one averaging about 40 hours of listening time), and she does a remarkable job (except for her American accent for one character, which is just a bit odd and flat and doesn’t sound like any American accent I know!).

I broke away from Outlander world for a bit and listened to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and loved every minute of it. The narrator’s intonations and speech patterns made me feel like I was really in the main character’s world, and added so much to my enjoyment of the story.

But two books really epitomize the audio experience for me, and here’s why:

lord johnFirst, although I love the Outlander audiobooks, the truly magnificent audiobook versions of Diana Gabaldon’s works are the Lord John books, narrated by Jeff Woodman. Lord John Grey is a supporting character in the Outlander series, who then became the star of a spin-off series of books of his own. I liked him on the page, but was always anxiously awaiting the moment when I could get back to the world of Jamie and Claire. John was an interesting guy, but I didn’t quite love him… yet. In the audiobooks, Lord John simply sparkles. Jeff Woodman’s narration perfectly captures John’s intensity, his understated dry humor, and his constant attention to propriety and social nuances. If you’re an Outlander fan and you’ve been on the fence about reading the Lord John books, go straight to audio. It’s a treat, plain and simple.

My second audio experience that was really eye-opening for me happened just this past week, when I decided to break from my safe routine and give a listen to a book that I hadn’t read already. I picked up Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle when it was an Audible Daily Deal recently, but thought I’d read a hard copy first before listening to it. That never happened, and when I found myself looking for the next audiobook to start, I figured I’d give it a whirl, despite almost psyching myself out by focusing on how hard it can be for me to concentrate while listening.

Guys. Wow. I’m so glad I went ahead it with it.

To put it mildly — this book rocks. Bernadette Dunne is just brilliant as the narrator of the audiobook. She voices the book’s point-of-view character, Mary Catherine Blackwood, with a girlish voice that hides all sorts of shades of craziness and jacksondelusion, and the other characters — from the hostile villagers to decrepit Uncle Julian — are distinct, recognizable, and just completely spot-on. When I got a few chapters in, I borrowed a hard copy of the book from a friend so I could compare certain passages — and maybe it’s because I was already hooked on the audio, but I just didn’t get the same rich flavor from the words on the printed page. Bernadette Dunne does an amazing job of conveying the sing-song flavor of some the character’s lines, where key words and phrases get repeated and repeated, giving the whole thing a slightly unreal, otherworldly feel, even while describing terrible events and awful emotions. The story of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an amazing portrayal of the intersection of madness, fantasy, and decay. If you enjoy your books with a touch of gothic creepiness, then there’s nothing better than hearing:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

If you’d like to hear a sample, check out the book’s Audible page, here.

What have I learned thus far from my audio adventures? One, that I love audiobooks far more than I could have imagined a few years ago. Two, that I’d rather listen to books while driving or exercising than listen to music, and that the time just zips by in the company of a good book. Three, that in the hands (or voice) of a gifted narrator, an audiobook can bring the nuances and depths of a story to life in a whole new way. And four, that I am, in fact, capable of enjoying a story entirely through the spoken word — which is a might big revelation for me!

How about you? Do you enjoy audiobooks? Are there any that really stand out for you? Please share your thoughts!


15 thoughts on “Adventures in Audio

  1. Hands down, the best audio book I’ve ever listened to is Stephen Fry’s narration of Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy. I also adore my collection of Sherlock Holmes as read by Simon Piggot. While I’ve always listened to audiobooks, the number of books I listened to this year went up significantly when I discovered Kindle’s Whispersync program. Knowing I can get the audio for a severely discounted price has become one of the determining factors when deciding which books to buy.

    • Oh, thanks for the suggestions! I’ll definitely check out Hitchhiker’s Guide. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the books, and I’ve always wanted to revisit them. I agree about the Whispersync program — it’s so great to be able to get both versions!

  2. “I was pretty amazed to discover, when I picked up the hard copy of the same book, that what felt like a massive amount of story that I’d heard only added up to about ten pages.”

    THIS! This is what drives me crazy about audiobooks! I’ve tried giving them a chance, but when a book that would take me 4 or 5 hours to read is suddenly 15 hours of narration… I just don’t have that much time where listening is more convenient than reading. I don’t have a commute, and I can’t concentrate while I’m doing other things around the house. The only possibility would be while working out, but music is just so much better at keeping my energy up. If I had a long road trip, I might be tempted to give them another chance. But I listened to an audiobook on a 3-hour round trip once and felt like I barely made a dent in the book.

    I am thinking that, once my baby is born, feeding times might be a good opportunity to give them another chance. I’ve been told that it’s a great time to get reading done since you’re just sitting there, but with how tired I’m probably going to be, especially in the beginning, having a story read to me might be the better choice. And all those shorter sessions will add up, and let me feel like I’m actually making progress. (Though I will definitely stick to re-reads… like you said, not as big a deal if your attention briefly wanders.)

    So, I haven’t sworn them off for life… but for where I am right now, they just don’t make any sense for me.

    • Yeah, the time involved was a big hurdle for me at the beginning — how can it possibly take that long to listen to a book that I could read in a fraction of the time? I did notice that the audible app allows you to choose the speed, so you can listen at 1.5x normal, but somehow the idea of that just seems weird to me.

      Good luck with the nursing/reading idea! I generally found that (for the middle of the night feedings, especially), I couldn’t engage with anything more taxing than mindless TV… but as my little guy got a little past the newborn stage, sometimes I could handle a book as well. Audiobooks sound like a great option — I’d love to hear if it works for you!

  3. I think my favorite audiobooks are ones like The Blood of Flowers or The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, where the narrator brings their accent (and correct pronunciations) to the book and makes me really feel like I’m there.

    I also prefer middle grade audiobooks, just because they’re shorter and written with attention-challenged pre-adolescents in mind. 🙂

  4. I have tried to like audiobooks, but I just don’t have the attention span. For some reason, my mind wonders. I even tried listening to one while exercising because I figured focusing on an audiobook would beat focusing on my elliptical workout. But nope. I would start the audiobook, then start thinking about something else and before I knew it thirty minutes had went by and I had NO idea what was happening! Ha

    • I understand completely, and that’s why for the longest time I was sure that audiobooks just weren’t for me. Listening to something I’m already familiary with really does help, so I don’t stress about missing little details — because I’m very easily distractable! 🙂

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  6. Yes to all of this! I’m totally addicted too 🙂 I love audio for re-reading which I don’t always make as much time for and I also have other favorite genres (nonfiction & humor in particular), but will occasionally choose fiction if audio feels like a good fit for the story. This Shirley Jackson book sounds PERFECT for audio, so I will definitely be checking out my library for it. I’m kind of bummed it’s starting to get too cold for walking outside because that is my favorite time to listen. Though listening while doing chores — washing dishes, doing laundry, and any other boring thing around the house that requires my hands, but not my mental attention — also works great for me 🙂

    • Oh yes, I’m now firmly plugged with my earphones ready whenever I fold laundry! 🙂 My family thinks I’m becoming anti-social, though. Ha. Humor might be a good one for me to try next (Bossypants, perhaps?) — I tend not to make time for “real” reading for anything other than fiction, so maybe I should try the audio versions of a few genres outside my normal reading habits.

  7. I used to find them useful on long road trips, which, thankfully, I don’t do much nowadays. I put them on walking around town, sometimes, but inevitably meet people and have to stop…what they are great for is when you’re stressed and suffering from insomnia…I find listening to audiobooks stops me going over and over my worries – I end up listening to the book, not the rubbish in my head, and soon fall asleep. I use an app that turns it off at your preferred time, say after 15 minutes, or 30, or an hour.
    What I like to listen to, though, is non-fiction – I like history books, some of the more commercial science books, economics…it seems easier to take in than when reading it, when I often end up with my mind wandering!

    • Such a good idea — I’ll have to keep this in mind for those tossing and turning nights. I like the idea of trying non-fiction via audio. There are a bunch I’d like to get to, but I never end up wanting to sit down with anything but fiction in my hands. Maybe I’ll give some history a chance though… thanks for the suggestion!

  8. I love, love, love audiobooks. Although I’ve been listening to and enjoying them for years, it did take me some time to really appreciate them. When I was younger my mom listened to them all the time because she had a decent commute to work everyday and she isn’t much of a music person. At that time I thought that it was silly that she listened to them. But then sometimes she’d listen to them while I was in the car, and I became interested in those stories. Then I started listening to Harry Potter, and loved that. But still, I rarely listened to audiobooks.

    Then I went to grad school that was three hours from where I lived. And that was when I became obsessed. But even then, I really only listened to audiobooks in the car. this was before downloading audiobooks became a thing, so i never really listened to them any other time. When I was finished with grad school, and ended up with a short commute to work, I wouldn’t listen to them that often, although sometimes I did.

    Then, when I started blogging, I started listening to audiobooks again. And I could download them to my phone which was amazing! Now I listen to them when I get ready in the morning, while I’m cleaning, while I’m driving, and on those rare occasions when I go for walks. Sometimes I’ve just listened to them while sitting on the couch.

    There are definitely some books that I prefer the audiobook for. Take Maggie Stiefvater, I’ve read two of her books via a print copy. Those were okay to me. But I’ve listened to three, and I’ve LOVED them! That’s what I like about audiobooks so much, that a book I would have struggled with reading the print version, becomes amazing in the audio format.

    I’m so glad you have fallen in love with audiobooks. They are so amazing.

    • Like you said: “That’s what I like about audiobooks so much, that a book I would have struggled with reading the print version, becomes amazing in the audio format.” I love your enthusiasm! It’s been so eye-opening to me to discover a whole new way of appreciating books — and while I still have to be really careful to constantly remind myself not to drift into other thoughts, I’m finding it easier and more enjoyable to really just go with the flow and enjoy the listening experience. I’m glad to hear how much you love audiobooks! I still need to listen to Harry Potter one of these days…

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