I have been an avid reader my whole life. For many years, I resisted the technology now available in terms of books, computer screen reading, Kindle formats, and audio text. Maybe I am just getting old and, like many older folk, I’m just stuck in my ways.
I received a Kindle for my birthday a few years ago, something I never would have bought for myself as I’m practically morally opposed to the thing. In time, though, I have learned to use it, and I do like the convenience it provides whenever I travel. I refuse to rely on it entirely, and I still buy far more physical books than I do digital ones.
I primarily use a desktop computer, so reading a book on my computer screen is no more likely to happen than watching a movie on it. Perhaps, some day, if I have a snazzy laptop I’ll consider it, but I think the farthest I am willing to concede to digital books is the aforementioned Kindle.
That left me with only my resistance to audio books. I always considered audio books the lazy man’s literature. But then something happened in my life that made me reconsider. I got a job that is boring and repetitive, but requires me to visually pay attention to what I’m doing, since the work is very detail oriented. There’s a CD player in the office available to all of the employees. I work with only one other person on a 3 to 11pm shift, and after the first several weeks it began abundantly clear that our musical tastes didn’t overlap very often, nor did our volume preference. As a compromise, he suggested bringing in an audio book. At this I blanched, but given the alternative of another night of some obscure German industrial band I’d never heard of, I agreed.
For the next two weeks we listened to The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. The novel is a historical fiction story of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. (As a side note, I would gladly recommend this book to anyone.) At first, it was difficult to stay focused on listening. Music in the background while you’re working doesn’t demand your attention the way an audiobook does. There were times I had to ask if I could rewind a little bit because my mind had unconsciously stopped listening, so when I snapped back into paying attention I realized I didn’t know what was going on, as if I were reading and skipped a few pages.
By the third night I was into the story. By the sixth or seventh night I was looking forward to listening the way I look forward to reading. Into the second week, I realized how long this novel was and that it probably would have taken me several months to find the free time to actually read it in real time. So my conversion began.
After The Paris Wife it was clear that my co-worker didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I had. That may have been due in part to the fact that he had actually read the book, he had chosen it because he thought that I would like it, which was incredibly thoughtful. However, it was clear that he wasn’t interested in doing it again. Since we couldn’t agree on music very often, we started listening to the news for an hour and then we each retreated into handheld devices and headphones.
For a while I listened to music, but then grew tired of that. I tried some motivational speaker audio files but grew weary of those almost as quickly. I kept thinking about how much I enjoyed my first audio book, so I gave in and started looking for new ones I could download. To my delight, I discovered the treasure trove on the internet of all things audio. I started with sites like The Internet Archive and Librivox and for a couple of months listened to nothing but titles that were out of copyright and therefore available for free downloading. Then I found out that more recent books were available for free download from my library. It is now about four months since The Paris Wife and I now listen to two to three titles a week.
I know that I was not an easy convert, and that there are many others like me. Also like me, most of you will do what I did, which is to continue to read physical print books whenever you have the time. But if you are curious and want to take the audio leap, here are a few pointers that might make your transition a little easier.
- 1) Take advantage of the time factor. If you’ve always wanted to read giant tomes like Moby Dick or War and Peace but didn’t because you don’t have that kind of time, listen to them instead. Similarly, if you are a frequent patron of your local library, you may find that you haven’t finished a book before its due date, but can’t renew it because there’s a waiting list. Return it and rent the audio version instead.
- 2) Take a few trial runs on novels you’re not all that invested in to get the hang of really listening instead of treating the novel as background noise. Our brains create new habits the same way our bodies do. Over time, you will become more skilled at listening and retaining the information. If you can listen the “right” way, you’ll be just as able to participate in a discussion about the book as you would if you had read it.
- 3) Pace yourself. If you’ve ever tried to read a book too fast, you’ve had the experience of going back a few pages or even a few paragraphs and re-reading until the information, description, emotion depicted, or sentiment conveyed has really sunk in. You can do the same thing with an audio book by using rewind as frequently as need be.
- 4) Look online for quality literature. If you are a discerning reader, than you know that there is a lot of poorly written literature to sift through to get to the really good stuff. The same is true of audio books. If a book was poorly received or reviewed, don’t assume they didn’t go ahead and make an audio book of it anyway.
- 5) The reader matters. This is perhaps the most important tip. A good commentator makes all the difference in the world. I have given up on books that I might have enjoyed visually reading because the voice was too awful, too annoying, too accented, and too monotone. Reading is just as much of a skill as writing. Your enjoyment of an audio book will be greatly enhanced by having a seasoned reader. This is particularly true of large sites like Librivox that use a pool of volunteer readers. And although it’s always a nice sentiment when people volunteer, it doesn’t always mean they’re good at it. The nice thing about audio book readers is that you can search for them online the same way you would search for your favorite authors. If you find someone’s voice particularly compelling or soothing, go search and find out what else they’ve read. Many books are available by more than one reader, and several books have audio recorded by the novel’s own author.
- 6) Character differentiaion is essential. This also falls under the good reader’s domain. A good audio book voice will go to great lengths to do different accents and affectations for different voices in the text. Without this, it isn’t always easy to tell who’s talking when.
With these things in mind, you are now prepared to go be a master consumer of audio books! Good luck and happy listening.