Listen Up! Some Thoughts on Audio Books


I just recently discovered audio books.

Until now, my only experience with them had been in the classroom when I let the CD (or tapes back in the day) read to my students when I either had a sub or a sore throat. I’d never considered them for myself because A) I’m a paper book, feel the pages beneath my fingers, underline a sentence kind of girl and B) I’m easily distracted when it come to auditory things. I’ve tried listening to podcasts at home, and it goes something like this:

Hmm, this is really interesting… Ooo, look at that funny picture of a cat… Hey good for me, I cleaned out my whole closet! Um, what is that voice coming from my computer? Oh yeah…

Then, a few months ago, I went to the library to check out Pat Barker’s Regeneration for one of my book clubs, and the print copy was in use, but the audio copy was available, so I thought, what the heck. I put the first disc into my car’s CD player and hit play. Since then, I have listened to five audio books, pretty much back-to-back. I’m going to the library tomorrow to get another one.

What’s so great about audio books?

For me, the best thing about audio books is how much they improve every commute, errand, and solo road trip. Although I have trouble paying attention to stories when I’m at home in a room full of distractions, in the car my hands and eyes are occupied. Forced to be still, I can listen. And once I start listening, I really enjoy it.

Now, I look forward to getting in the car. I talk on the phone while driving much less than I used to. And I can easily balance two books at a time because they don’t overlap. One is for home, the other is for driving—there is never a choice to make about which one to read.

Have you heard anything good lately?

Of course, there are drawbacks. One is simply how to talk about them. I tell people that I “read” Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, though it feels a little counterfeit to use that verb. Then again, saying I heard  it or listened to it doesn’t feel quite right either. It gives me the same sensation as hearing someone say they’re going out to see some music or watch a speech.

"Listen... do you smell something?"
“Listen… do you smell something?”

Another problem is not all audio books are not created equal.

For instance, Ann Patchett read Truth and Beauty herself, and it was wonderful. It was nice hearing a memoir in the author’s own voice. The rest of the novels were performed by other people. Jeff Woodman, who read John Green’s Looking For Alaska did an amazing job. Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, both by Pat Barker, were read by Peter Firth, and while he had a great voice, he often emphasized different words in the dialogue than I would have, causing me to have to hear the book twice, as if I were translating it in my head. (When we discussed those novels in my book club, I found that I had a completely different impression of some of the characters than the readers of the print version did.)

That’s not my complaint though. Obviously there is going to be some subjectivity in any reading. What bothered me was the variety of ways in which the CDs were produced.

In Regeneration, every track is roughly three minutes long;, resulting in 16-20 tracks per CD. In Truth and Beauty, there are only four to five long tracks per CD, which makes rewinding difficult. In Looking for Alaska, there are ninety-nine tracks per CD, which is kind of overkill. In Regeneration, the first and last track on each CD is an informative “This ends disc four” type of thing. But Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke do not have those informative tracks. The CD simply starts over at the beginning, which can be very confusing. I’d be driving along thinking, Wait, they’re back in Scotland again? and then realize I was listening to a chapter I’d already heard. Looking for Alaska’s method of dealing with the CD switch is even more bizarre. This weird elevator music starts playing for the last thirty seconds of the CD, and it plays over the words. There are some pretty intense scenes in Looking For Alaska, and some of them do NOT lend themselves to upbeat background music.

I sat in my driveway for fifteen minutes with the car running to hear the end of Looking for Alaska.
I sat in my driveway for fifteen minutes with the car running to hear the end of Looking for Alaska.

So, having become a recent self-proclaimed authority on the subject, I have some advice for audio book producers.

5 Tips for Not Annoying Your Reader/Listener:

  1. Keep tracks to three minutes or less. It makes it much easier for us to get back on track (no pun intended) when we accidentally zone out.
  2. Include a conclusion track at the end of each CD, politely telling us to change the disc.
  3. When a new disc begins, repeat the last sentence or two of the previous disc to help us ease back into the moment.
  4. Ask all performers to read the books exactly the way I would read them. I’m sure that won’t be a problem. They can call me for advice if they need to.
  5. Go ahead and give James Earl Jones, Susan Sarandon, Scarlett Johansson, and Zach Braff a heads up that I’ll be needing their services when I finish my novels because I’m pretty sure no one wants to hear my voice for eight hours.

Of course, the last tip I have about audio books is that you have to choose them carefully. I am still a paper book, feel the pages beneath my fingers, underline a sentence kind of girl at heart, and I do not recommend scribbling notes in journals while driving. When it comes to audio books, choose stories you want to read but don’t want to study. Choose books that will make your commute a pleasurable experience but which will not engross you so much that you zone out and end up twenty miles past your destination. There are books that can do that to you, trust me.

Published by Carie Juettner

Carie Juettner is a former middle school teacher and the author of The Ghostly Tales of New England, The Ghostly Tales of Austin, and The Ghostly Tales of Burlington in the Spooky America series by Arcadia Publishing. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as The Twin Bill, Nature Futures, and Daily Science Fiction. Carie lives in Richardson, Texas, with her husband and pets. She was born on Halloween, and her favorite color is purple.

4 thoughts on “Listen Up! Some Thoughts on Audio Books

  1. I’m totally with you on all of this! My husband and I have started getting a new audio book every time we make the trip back home to visit our families (7 hours round-trip). To me, it’s not as enjoyable as reading a book myself, but it’s so much better than hopping through radio stations as we move from town to town. The ‘listen, do you smell something’ problem is spot on, though, and too funny!

    1. So far my audio books are only for solo driving. My husband and I do the 7-hour family visit too, but he prefers the radio hop, and since he’s the one doing the driving I let him choose. I usually bring a collection of ghost stories with us though, and he’ll turn off the radio and let me read a story or two aloud now and then, so that’s fun.

  2. “Ask all performers to read the books exactly the way I would read them.” Hilarious. I recently thought I had stumbled upon a golden idea for a writer when I realized, ‘Oh my God, I can listen to books while driving! I do that a lot! And I’ll be getting more reading done.’ But then, the one that I started listening to, Pillow for My Helmet, ended up being so good and enjoyable that I didn’t want to miss a thing due to intermittent road rage. : / So it kind of fell off as a thing for me. But I do plan to visit my library and see what I find there. That’s a great idea; the library is too underused.

    You really summed up all of my thoughts on listening to audio books, from the counterfeit, ‘Oh, yes . I read that one’, to the interpretation of the novel by the reader. I never thought of how differently you would perceive it, having listened to it, from someone who had physically read it. Very nice post, Carie.

    1. Thanks! I say give it another try. I didn’t delve very deeply into how important the book selection is. It can’t be something you’re too into. I often choose books that I need to read for book club but which weren’t my pick. Then again, sometimes I get more into them than I ever thought I would. When I got to the end of Truth and Beauty, I ended up telling my husband one night, “I’m going to go drive around for half an hour. I just can’t wait to finish my book.” Ha! Also the library is great for audio books (and real books and movies and for providing a quiet place to work) but beware– sometimes the CDs skip. 😦 That’s a bummer.

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