6-1-2016. READING WITH YOUR EARS: ALL ABOUT AUDIOBOOKS
Have you ever wished you had more time to read? If you’re like me, each week, when the new books are released, you vow to spend more time cuddled up on the couch, lost in a good story. For most of us, however, there aren’t enough quiet moments in the day to indulge. Say hello to audiobooks, your new BFFs.
Audiobooks allow you to capture all kinds of lost minutes: imagine reading at the same time you’re driving, exercising, cooking, and gardening. There is something magical about being read to that touches us deep inside, reviving memories of childhood bedtime stories and also linking us to our long-ago ancestors, who listened to tales told around the evening fire.
I’m often asked about the differences between listening to a book and reading a book in print. One of the biggest pluses of audiobooks is hearing the correct pronunciations of foreign words, especially in languages you are not familiar with. For me that means pretty much everything except English, French, and Spanish. I love the connection I feel to the setting and characters when I hear names and places spoken out loud. The experience is particularly memorable when the narrator speaks in a totally fictional language, as is found in the unabridged audiobook of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The same can be said when a narrator is good with accents. For example, a cold war spy thriller is made all the more authentic when the Russian, British, and American characters have recognizable accents and speak in cadences that match their native language. One of my favorite historical fiction narrators, John Lee, is a master at accents, and his performances of Ken Follett’s Century trilogy are not to be missed.
Finally, listening to a good performance brings a new dimension to my reading experience. The creepy parts are scarier, the sad scenes require tissues, and the tension is made extra-tight. When a narrator hits that sweet spot of infusing a little drama and emotion into the performance while still allowing me room to form my own opinions, then I’ve reached audiobook heaven. Narrator Tavia Gilbert so captured the titular character’s personality in Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank with Me, that I can’t imagine reading the novel in print.
Of course, like print books, not all audiobooks are created equal, and it’s true that a poor performance can detract from an otherwise good story. What do I find distracting in an audiobook? Here are some of my pet peeves: a performance that is over-the-top, dramatic and emotional; music, which makes it difficult to hear the narrator; stereotypical, cartoon-like accents; and a flat narration, with no variations in volume, cadence, or tone.
In addition, I don’t think audiobooks are good for all genres. Your mileage may vary, but here are some types of books I avoid in audio. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but when I do, I want to see the shape of the poem on the page as well as the line and stanza breaks. These visual cues often help in understanding the meaning of a poem. Plus I often want to reread a section, pause, and contemplate a passage. I’m also not a fan of short stories and essays in the audiobook format. That’s because I don’t necessarily read every piece in a collection and I don’t always want to read through a series of shorts all in one go. Obviously, one’s experience with a heavily illustrated book would be diminished by listening instead of reading.
I’m also often asked about how to get started in audiobooks. If you’ve never listened to a book before or if you’ve had trouble in the past, I have some suggestions that might get you hooked. For your first few audiobooks, pick something light, perhaps a cozy mystery or a fun beach read. Don’t start with a book that requires your full attention; you may need to train your brain to get used to audiobooks. Another good idea is to listen to a classic you’re already familiar with or to a book you’ve been meaning to reread. That way, if your mind wanders a bit, you won’t be completely lost.
Next, be sure to listen to the sample of the recording. Most venders and library services allow you to listen to five minutes or so of the audiobook. Take advantage of this. If you don’t like the sound of the narrator’s voice or you are having trouble understanding an accent, then pick another book. You can also read reviews of audiobooks at vender sites, on book blogs, and in review magazines. Start with a book that everyone seems to love, and you’ll up your chances of having a good experience.
And my biggest piece of advice is this: do not sit in a chair to listen. Instead get active—take a walk around the block, wash dishes, fold laundry. Even the most avid audiobook fan would have a hard time sitting still for the duration of a ten-hour book. Oh and one final note: if you don’t like the narrator’s performance, turn the book off and find something else. There are hundreds of other choices, and it shouldn’t be hard to find the perfect audiobook for you.
Here are a dozen books I can recommend without reservation.
Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew (read by Kate Mulgrew)
John Adams by David McCullough (read by Edward Hermann)
Stiff by Mary Roach (read by Shelly Frasier)
Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (read by Dan Lee Miller)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton (read by Robert Petkoff)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (read by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner)
Young Adult & Middle Grade
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (read by Jeannie Stith)
Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (read by Finty Williams)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (read by Neil Gaiman)
My All-Time Favorite Audiobook Ever (it’s a tie!)
Wicked, Lovely by Melissa Marr (read by Alyssa Bresnahan)
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (read by Libba Bray)
Candace Levy is a full-time freelance book editor whose clients include both major publishing firms and prominent independent presses. She is also a freelance book reviewer and journalist, covering books in a wide range of genres. When she’s not at her desk, you’ll inevitably find her listening to an audiobook while cooking, walking, making lace, or taking photographs. She was honored to be the Audio Publisher Association’s Audiobook Blogger of the year for 2016. To keep track of all her bookish adventures, follow Candace on Twitter (@BethFishReads) or visit her blog, Beth Fish Reads (http://www.bethfishreads.com/).