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.
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 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.
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?