“Reading” audiobooks

Last week I finished listening to my second audiobook.

I listened to my first one last summer, when I drove down to L.A. to pick Sam up from the AIDS LifeCycle ride. Normally I don’t spend enough time in the car to  do much more than turn on NPR. But my new job involves a commute across town of about 15 minutes, which is just enough time to plug in an iPod and listen to a bit of an audiobook.

Image by Jeff Daly / Creative Commons

I’m intrigued by how the experience of listening to a book differs from that of reading a book. (Particularly when the listening coincides with trying to drive, observe surrounding traffic, watch out for sudden movements by pedestrians and bicyclists, etc.)

I’ve loved the two audiobooks I’ve listened to so far — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot  and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, both nonfiction.

I had also tried a third audiobook, Bill Bryson’s At Home, and while I’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, the audiobook didn’t work for me at all. I stopped after about a chapter and a half.

So what makes for a successful audiobook?

The Bryson book, a discursive history on the furnishings of the modern home, didn’t have enough narrative flow to keep me focused in the car. It rambled along through various interesting factoids and digressions but had no clear direction. I would get distracted by a traffic maneuver and then re-focus with no idea what he was talking about or where it was going. Unlike a print book, the audio version didn’t let me glance ahead to see how long a particular digression would last and whether I wanted to skip over it.

Both the Henrietta Lacks and Glass Castle books had much stronger narratives. Glass Castle is a memoir about an extremely bizarre and dysfunctional family, where the author manages to convey both the horrific nature of her childhood and also the love she felt for her irresponsible, alcoholic, narcissistic, eccentric parents.

Henrietta Lacks is a brilliant combination of scientific and social history — interweaving the story of HeLa cells, a set of fast-growing cancer cells that have been the basis for huge quantities of medical research over the past fifty years, and the dirt-poor, barely-educated African American family from whom the cells were taken with no explanation or consent. The writer tells both the family and medical stories in the context of her own journey — tracking down the source of the original HeLa cells, and trying to build a relationship with the justifiably suspicious and aggrieved members of the Lax family.

In any case, they both had plots. 

But they were also both non-fiction. Which is interesting, since probably 90 percent of what I read is fiction.

I’ve found myself reluctant to choose fiction for audiobook listening. With fiction, I care a lot about the way things are written. If there’s a nice phrase or image, I want to stop and read it again or savor it. Which I can’t do while my iPod is babbling merrily on into the next paragraph and I’m steering the car around  a double-parked garbage truck on Alcatraz Avenue.

I suppose I could listen to novels that are more plot-driven than literary, where I wouldn’t care much about the writing — detective novels and so on.  But somehow I haven’t wanted audiobooks where I would get too caught up in the plot, since I have to turn them off after each 15-minute commute.

When I’m reading a print book in bed, I can just keep going if it’s really gripping. (Haven’t we all had the experience of staying up until 1 a.m. with a novel we just can’t put down?)  But again, you can’t do that with an audiobook on your daily commute.

Plus nonfiction makes me feel like I’m doing something “productive” with my otherwise useless commute time. I’m learning facts about something in the real world. This is completely spurious. But it appeals to my multitasking, Type-A, overachiever self.

So… my ideal audiobook, it seems, is a well-written, accessible work of nonfiction with a strong (but not too strong!) plot or narrative.

Any recommendations?

And do you find that your reading tastes vary between print books and audiobooks?

Come to think of it, if you use a Kindle or similar e-reader device, has that influenced the types of books you like to read?

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5 Responses to ““Reading” audiobooks”

  1. Jimmy Says:

    For audiobooks, I listen to a lot of books I feel I should read, but don’t want to commit the time to actually reading: Ayn Rand, David McCullough, Voltaire, etc.

    I also love the Great Courses series. It makes me feel like my commute time isn’t wasted.

  2. alanterra Says:

    Ilana, go for the great courses (tho they aren’t cheap). I have listened to their lectures on ancient history (ancient greek civilization, religion in the ancient mediterranean world) and they are great. And they are broken up into nice 30-minute segments.

    When I go to Baja (not as much as I wish, these days) I have 8-hour drives and audio books are life (or, at least, mind) savers. Books I have enjoyed are “Lolita” (read by Jeremy Irons), “Oryx & Crake”, “Invisible” (read by its author, Paul Auster), and “The Old Way” (also read by its author, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas).

    For me, the desideratum is the quality of the writing. I tried to listen to some books on current events and they were so poorly written that I turned them off immediately. Your eye can skip over padding or repetition, but if you can’t savor every word, you don’t want to listen to a book. The rate of input is, I think, about half the speed of reading for me, so I have to have something with real content that engages my mind.

    But, the other thing to do is try out some podcasts for your commute. Free and topical. I remember you saying that you don’t listen to “On the Media”—I really recommend it, and then perhaps Radiolab as dessert.

    I don’t do any audio books when I’m not traveling, as I really like to listen to them in 2-hour segments. But I often listen to pod-casts as they come in 45 to 60-minute segments, and I can stop whenever I want.

  3. Patti Says:

    I acquired a kindle fairly recently, the smallest cheapest version. Amazon has a number of public-domain titles available for free download, so I’ve recently finished “Jane Eyre” and “Pygmalion” that way. All you get, though, is the text of the work itself, without any of the prefatory material you’d find in any printed version, and I do find that I miss that. One can also borrow books from the public library this way, and when I was home sick for a few days that was a most welcome source of distraction, which only required expending the effort to walk into the other room and spend a few minutes at the computer.

    It’s not remotely the same experience as reading an actual book. It’s incredibly cumbersome to highlight favorite passages, much less to figure out how to get back to them. Everything appears in the same font, which you might think shouldn’t matter but does. It’s really a system for the “delivery” of “content” rather than for “reading” as I think of it. I can’t imagine owning anything important to me solely in this format. Then again, I’m a Luddite dinosaur.

  4. Janice Says:

    While folks are suggesting podcasts and Kindle content, let me offer an idea for each of those. There is a GREAT weekly radio show out of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities called “BackStory with the American History Guys.” Three history professors “tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths” with insight, humor, and surprisingly little political bias (usually). You can easily get to podcasts from the show from their website, backstoryradio.org. This is my husband’s and my favorite way to pass medium length car trips. It’s hard to beat NPR for those 10-15 minute drives, though.

    R.e. Kindle content, I have been nibbling my way through “I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks” by Laurie Garrett. It is available only as an e-book. I am not sure if it’s available from anywhere other than amazon, but I am finding it very compelling. Especially since I was 16 in 2001 and am realizing just how much my teenage self missed about the 9/11 aftermath.

    @Patti, I am sympathetic to your experience with reading on a Kindle, but I actually come down on the opposite side. That being said, it sounds like our reading styles and needs are totally different–I don’t like to re-read books (they’re never surprising the second time), and I hate having to find somewhere to store books. :)

    I like your book-related posts, Ilana. I also loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It is one helluva book.

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