Friday, September 17, 2010


I've been thinking about writing about audiobooks for a while, and Tenured Radical's recent post has inspired me to do so.
  1. It's easier to keep several books going at one time and keep your mental place in them than it is with print books. I don't know why this is, but I can click on Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello after a couple of weeks spent on, say, Lyndall Gordon's Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds or Simon Schama's Rough Crossings and still recall what's going on with the Jefferson-Hemings family very well.
  2. Since you can't skim and can't easily jump ahead when you're driving, if a chapter is dense with an intricate accounting of financial documents, you have to be able to tolerate the less-than-gripping stretches where you'd usually skim.
  3. It's also hard for me to get past the "I paid for this, so I ought to listen to it" sense of a book, much harder than it is to put down a dull print book that I've bought. I did skip a chapter of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History but now don't feel that I can say I've read it. Of course, can you ever say you've "read" an audiobook?
  4. On the other hand, as you listen you really do get a sense of every word, although you can't mark or highlight the text as you would when you're reading. I've listened to some literary works that I knew well and have picked up on additional nuances just by listening to the audio version.
  5. I hope this doesn't sound too shallow, but the narrator/reader can make a difference. For example, some readers do the accents when they read quotations, and some don't. The reader for Lives like Loaded Guns, who sounds a little like Julie Andrews most of the time, does a kind of dry, scratchy New England accent when she reads the words of the Dickinson family (lower voice for Edward and Austin, higher for Emily). John Slattery (yes, that John Slattery) does a great job with accents and the regular narration in A Farewell to Arms, although I didn't even realize that he was the narrator for a while. ("Why does that voice sound so familiar? Oh, wait--")
  6. I hate it when the recording engineers or producers or whoever decide to snip out too many natural pauses in the editing process. I couldn't say for sure that that's what happened in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, but listening to that one for too long will leave you breathless since there aren't pauses where you'd expect them.
  7. Buy an abridgment only if you're up for the challenge of figuring out what's going on, since a lot of them seem to simply lop out random chapters. I've bought a few by mistake and been mightily confused with a random character pops up in the last third of the book.
  8. With audiobooks, you're limited to what's available. I've downloaded some books from Librivox but mostly go through (2 books/month for $22). Having a limited set of choices isn't necessarily bad since it forces you to read things you might not pay $35 for in a bookstore. For example, I might have given a casual glance to Martha A. Sandweiss's Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line if I'd seen it at a book exhibit, but since it was available in audio form, I bought it and it was excellent.
Does anyone else listen to audiobooks?
[Edited to add links.]


Katrina said...

I already commented on this over at Tenured Radical. But I'm interested in your experience that it's easier to mentally retain a place in an audiobook. I haven't found that at all - if I haven't listened regularly, I find myself wondering who the characters are: "was she the wife, or the cousin?" etc. Whereas with print books, even those I can't even remember starting to read, once I open them at the old bookmark, it emerges from somewhere in my memory and I follow the plot fine.

undine said...

I don't know why this seems to be so for me, Katrina. I can't do that with all of them--Gordon-Reed's is easier than Schama's, for example, because she has fewer characters and repeats significant points.