"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ear or the Eye - What makes for a good Audio book?

I joined Audible.com back in May of 2002 and have 304 audio books in my library to date. I listen to audio books while I drive, while I exercise, and if I'm really hooked, I may make up an excuse like cleaning the house to get some extra book listening time in.

I've been thinking a lot recently about what makes for a good audio book. In my experience of 304 books, not all are good for audio. Maybe not all are good for books, but that's not the point. Sometimes a book may be fantastic on the page, but listening to it on audio will drive a listener to loathe it.

Reading aloud is not kind to books. It makes every whiny statement the main character makes pronounced. It highlights duplications in dialogue and internal thought like a Magnalight. It makes sensory details really stand out and stay with a reader. And in many cases, it makes what might be very subtle clues on the page blatantly obvious such that the listener figures out the mystery well before the author intended.

I'm trying to make a list of rules of what works well for audio (and what does not work so well).

1) First, lets talk series.
The first in a series has the most potential on audio. I've exercised extra minutes on the elliptical many times in order to be able to extend my listening time for these. What doesn't always work so well are second and third in a series. Frankly, most of the time, I get sick of spending so much time with the same character, especially when the character tends toward the weak and whiny side.
I'll use TWILIGHT as an example here. Loved TWILIGHT on audio. I wanted to listen and listen and listen. NEW MOON I started to get annoyed with Bella, and by ECLIPSE I would find myself talking back to her while listening, yelling at her when she would do (yet again) something everyone in the universe knew she shouldn't do. Readers may say this was the case in the books, too, but I only have the audio experience for the TWILIGHT books.

2) Next, let's go with length.
There is the "I want to get my money's worth" mentality, and thus the buyer may try to buy the longest audio book they can. With a subscription, I get two books a month; it doesn't matter the length.
But in audio, longer is not always better. Longer can mean pages and pages of description. Case in point: MOBY DICK. As my husband said, do we really need to know the extended history of whale blubber hunting? Pages and pages and pages and pages of it over and over again?
So my rule has become to avoid the "longer" books on audio. Under 20 hours is normally what I shoot for with around 10 being ideal.

3) Classics?
These are hard. The language is so different. The writing is so filled with descriptions and repetitions and what we would now consider overdone dialogue. My opinion is classics are best left to the page and not the ear. I recently switched to the paper version of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN because I was frustrated with audio book pace.


And now, I'll give my top audio book recommendations:

1) Anything TERRY PRATCHETT. This guy is a genius. The narrators they use for the series are hilarious. I honestly think listening to Terry Pratchett far surpasses reading it on the page.

2) First in series that I loved:
  • UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

3) THE DAVINCI CODE by Dan Brown. Honestly one of the best audio listens I've ever done. So much that I'll listen to THE LOST SYMBOL rather than reading it.

4) SNOW CRASH and THE DIAMOND AGE by Neal Stephenson. Loved all these.

5) Personal development books like
  • GOALS by Brian Tracy
  • THE SECRET by Rhonda Byrne
  • YOU: THE OWNER'S MANUAL by Michael F. Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D.
6) Learning books like
  • A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME by Stephen Hawking

7) JANET EVANOVICH's Stephanie Plum series. Hilarious. Though I did burn out on these after about book 10.

So what are your thoughts on audio? Love it? Hate it? What makes for a good listen for you?


Christine M said...

I've never quite jumped on the audio book bandwagon. My parents like them and a couple of times I've been on long car trips with them and heard a book that way. Which was fine. For myself, I've never really found the right time and place to spend time listening to a book. I might have to give it a try.

Rena said...

I've listed to the Left Behind series on audio, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Great tapes and they add a bit more "eerie-ness" to certain characters when you "hear" them speaking.

Anna said...

Interesting breakdown. I started listening to audio books this past spring when I was having to do more commuting than usual. It was an interesting experience, but somehow it didn't stick. I think I just enjoy the act of reading too much, and I also love listening to NPR while driving.

But you've inspired me to give it another try. Next time I have a long drive, I'll try picking up a Terry Pratchett audio book. Based on the books I have read of his, I can see how they'd be a lot of fun to listen to.

B.J. Anderson said...

I tried audio once, but I'm a ding bat and couldn't concentrate long enough. I kept drifting off and realizing I'd missed stuff. I think I just need practice. Great post!

PJ Hoover said...

listening to books definitely takes some kind of pattern where you can actually get them listened to, Chris. And if it doens't fit in, then it doesn't. Buy you can always look :)

I've never listened to the Left Behind series, Rena, but thanks for the recommendation!

I definitely gave up the radio when the kids are not in the car, Anna. I used to have a 25 minute drive to work which equated to almost an hour of listening time each day.
And the narrator for Terry Pratchett is perfect!

PJ Hoover said...

Practice helps, BJ. But so does a really engrossing audio book. Some put me to sleep totally. Try something fun and different!

beth said...

For me, audio book voice actors are so important.

Jim Dale, who does the Harry Potter books, is BRILLIANT. Each character sounds unique--not like he tries to make different pitches (i.e. a high voice for a girl), but that he matches their tone perfectly. It's a nuanced detail. For example, Snape speaks low and slow, McGonagall speaks high and with a Scotch accent, Colin Creevy speaks really fast, etc.

And, beyond that, there's details. When the narration says someone's voice cracks as he speaks, Jim Dale reads the dialog with a cracked voice. When someone is close to tears, it sounds as if Dale is, too.

It's so smooth, and just so brilliantly done.

PJ Hoover said...

I so agree, Beth. The narrator can make all the difference in the world. Talented narrators are geniuses.

Miriam S.Forster said...

I've been thinking I need to jump on the audio bandwagon. A lot of libraries have electronic versions of books now that you can download. And I do have an ipod somewhere with a dead battery.

As with most things, I think I just need to actually do it.

Robyn Campbell said...

I...I just can't DO it! I have to read the book. Hold the book. I have to see the words. They mean a lot. Not just hear them. See them.

Nice post PJ. :)

C.R. Evers said...

I liked Steven King's "on Writing" in audio version. It felt like he was talking to me.

Eva Ibbitson's The Ghosts of Clawstone CAstle" was a lot of fun on audio.

adrienne said...

I haven't tried audio books - I'm sure my mind would drift...

Working Mom said...

I haven't listened to too many audio books (some children's literature and a maybe a dozen others), but I really enjoyed those that were read by the author. They read it the way they intended it to be read. I particularly enjoyed (and so did my children) E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.

As for Twilight, I don't think listening to it on audio really made a difference. I had your same experience with the books.

PJ Hoover said...

I know what you mean, Miriam! Just do it!

That's how I feel about the eBooks Robyn. I wonder if I'll ever change on those.

I loved SK's On Writing, Christy. And ditto Sol Stein's Stein On Writing. Both great on audio!

Maybe. Maybe not, Arienne. You never know until you try :)

LOL on Twilight, Working Mom. I agree the author reading makes for a very special experience. But not all authors read well. And some are fantastic.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Kelly said...

Wow!306 audio books!
I have only listened to one audio book, and it was The Green Mile and my husband and I listened to it as we drove from Colorado to Illinois. I LOVED the audio book! But I am also a big music lover so when I listen to something it is always music. I like the actual act of reading, too.
But I do recommend an audio book for a really long road trip!

Danyelle said...

I love Terry Pratchett! Not only is he dead on in his observations, but he's hilarious and breaks so many of the "writing rules", and yet he does it so well.

I haven't really done much with audio books, because I'm not a very aural person. It sticks better if I see it. But there are some books I've happened across that feel as though they're being read aloud, even though they're on paper. Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, and Wild Magic. The story telling is great. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I know, Kelly! I actually couldn't believe it when I checked my online library. Wow. An audio book on a long trip is a gift. Thankfully (?) I never drive very far these days.

i've had the same experience with some book I've read, Danyelle. Like they were written to be read aloud. And you nailed it on Terry Pratchett!

writtenwyrdd said...

I flat cannot listen to audio books, because I'll immediately tune them out and my thought wander hither and thither. Then I have to rewind/backup and start again where I last was paying attention. Doesn't matter what I'm doing--driving, cleaning, whatever--I tune it out.

PJ Hoover said...

I notice my mind wanders when I'm really pensive or when the book isn't all that good, Lynn. Two signs to turn it off and crank the music.

Solvang Sherrie said...

The kids and I love to listen to audio books, especially on a long road trip but even on our day to day errands. I read Da Vinci Code cover to cover when it first came out, but I've never read another Dan Brown book. Last time we were at the library they had Angels and Demons on cd for a buck so I bought it, although this one I probably won't share with the kids!

Kiki Hamilton said...

My daughter and I listened to the first three books of Harry Potter on tape when she was too young to plow through on her own and it was fabulous!

I haven't heard of audible.com but I'm on my way to check it out. I was just reading about Diamond Age last night and it sounds like the perfect companion for the treadmill!

PJ Hoover said...

That's one of the best things about my interest in kidlit, Sherrie. A lot of what I buy to listen to, the kids can listen, too. But yeah, not Angels and Demons (which I loved, BTW, but read on the page).

Neal Stephenson would help on the treadmill, Kiki! I loved Diamond Age, though my favorite book of his was Cryptonomicon (which I read). Have you read it?

Sara Latta said...

I listen to a lot of audio books as well. I find that the reader can make or break an audio book. Some of my favorites:
James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels (read by Will Patton);
Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (read by Lynn Redgrave) and Inkspell (read by Brendan Fraser, not quite as good as Redgrave but still quite good);
The Three Musketeers (read by Simon Vance);
and Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone (Sunil Malhotra, reader), which I never wanted to end.

I actually love getting really LONG books (partly for the bang for the buck value, and partly because it allows me to read some really long books that I'd otherwise probably never get around to reading: Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (Davina Porter, one of the best readers), and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (Roy Detrice, reader).

Sorry for the LONG comment--you can see that I really adore my audio books!

PJ Hoover said...

I have Inkheart in my library but haven't listened to it yet, Sara. I need to! I think it would be good with the kids.
I've read the George RR Martin series on the page but not on audio. I think since my commute went away I've tended toward the shorter books. And also since I'm reading so much more and faster these days.
I'm right there with you - love my audiobooks!

Thanks for visiting! It's nice to see you again!

lotusgirl said...

I need to do this again sometime. It's been so long and now it's so much more convenient. I tend to just read the books, but with this I can do so much more. Thanks for reminding me.

ElanaJ said...

I don't listen to books. There's something about the printed word that I adore. But I know I should; I'd get a lot more reading done.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I like to listen to audiobooks before falling asleep. I guess I'm still a kid at heart.
Among my favorites are Alice Hoffman's "The Probable Future," because I love the way it is read and the development of the lives of three generations of women; almost anything Neil Gaiman reads, because the man is a master of the skill, I've enjoyed "Stardust" and "The Wolves in the Walls," among others; the Harry Potter series is delightful in audio. I have gotten a hoot out of the Sookie Stackhouse audio novels, too.
I have also experienced not liking the way a book was read. In one case the reader used a slightly snarky tone that ruined for me a story I had read previously.

Vivian said...

I love books because they take me away to another place/time and make me laugh or cry. If the audio book narrator can evoke emotion for me, than I'll want to listen to it, otherwise, it's a total waste of time for me.

I often like to pick up audio books if I really enjoy a book, to listen to the sentence structure. A good book does not mean a good audio book.

Shelli said...

its all in the voice!

MG Higgins said...

Audio books borrowed from the library got me through five years of a horrendous commute. I would have gone to sleep without them. Still borrow audio CDs when I'm going on a long drive. I agree that who's doing the reading is crucial. Interesting post!

PJ Hoover said...

That's what I love about it best, Lois. I feel like I am doubling my time.

I love the printed word, too, Elana. But I realized while driving and exercising I could read vast amounts more. And I didn't have to give up the written word. Thanks for visiting!

I never listen at night, Tricia, but many nights we put one on for the kids. Is that lazy of me? I should be in there reading, right? I also enjoyed Stardust!

I love when an audiobook makes me cry, Vivian! Time Traveler's Wife is a good example. And Life of Pi. Loved that one.

The narrator does make such a difference, Shelli. It's inspiring!

Yay, another audio book commuter, MG! I loved using the time usefully!

Thanks for visiting, everyone!

Kelly H-Y said...

Such great points. I used to listen to audio books when I spent a lot of time commuting ... it made the drive go so much faster ... I loved it! But, your points are so true ... some work better than others on audio.

PJ Hoover said...

Totally, Kelly. Some audio books drive me nuts and some I adore!

Susan said...

My kids and I have an audio book going constantly in the car. I agree with you on the length. We've been listening to Harry Potter, and as we've gotten to the later books, they've still been enjoyable to listen to but are LONG! Order of the Phoenix is our current book, and it has 23 CDs. We check them out from the library, so this one will have to be renewed several times. I've predicted that we'll be done by Christmas!

For us, it has been a wonderful way to share books. It has also been a useful tool in finding my kids new books to read. We often listen to the first book in a series and then they read the rest of the books. Awesome!

PJ Hoover said...

Hi Susan! I love that my kids listen to the same books as me. It's like we have this new common bond. I really want to listen to them and so do they. I'm hoping it's a snippet into the future of what is to come!
Thanks for visiting!

Heather Zundel said...

Fantastic topic! I love audio books - if I can find a good one. I am so so picky. If I don't connect with the reader, their tone (which is really unfair, but true), or how they are portraying the characters, I can't last more than 15 minutes. So I end up plowing through audiobooks until I find a good one. But when I do, I latch onto them.

Since Halloween is coming up, I would highly suggest Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney on audiobook. So good, and it is one of the few books that scared me while listening to it.

PJ Hoover said...

I am getting pickier and pickier, Heather! And Revenge of the Witch. I'll check it out!