The Voices in My Head: Audiobooks and the reading experience

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I choose to experience a story as an audiobook for a few different reasons.

  1. It’s a book that everyone in the universe has already read, or told me to read, or that I’ve meant to read for months but can’t get from the library because it is just that popular. This was the case with The Hunger Games. After experiencing the shocked looks on fellow readers’ faces enough times when I admitted I had not yet read the book, I realized that I had to fix the situation. But how to squeeze it into my mile-long line up of to-be-read books? I snagged the audiobook off my library’s shelf, and was immediately hooked. This leads me to reason #2:
  2. Sometimes I choose to listen to audiobooks when I suspect I may not be all that excited or engrossed by the book on my own. Fantasy titles that involve a lot of unpronounceable names are among my favorite in this category — my brain doesn’t have to trip over how to sound out a foreign city with three apostrophes in it; someone else is already gracefully doing the hard work for me and I can just sit back and enjoy the story. The same applies to nonfiction that may involve a lot of technical language or foreign vocabulary. I listened to Julia Child’s excellent memoirs, My Life in France, without having to give a second thought to proper French pronunciation of cooking terms and distant cities — perhaps even learning the correct pronunciations as I listened.
  3. Reason #3 is very closely related to the idea of foreign language: I am a sucker for an accent. You could read me the phone book in an interesting accent and I would be completely entranced. So when I encounter a story set in a distant land, such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detetctive Agency series or the Odyssey-winning Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, I know I am in for a listening treat.
  4. Which brings me to the strength of the reader. Some audiobooks are so well read that the voice of that performer becomes the definitive voice of a character or story in my head. The first example that springs to mine is Stephen Briggs, the superlative reader of Terry Pratchett’s fiction in audiobook form. After experiencing a Tiffancy Aching story as read by Mr. Briggs for the first time, I swore no other way would ever be as good. Different voices bring characters to life, a dazzling array of accents are deftly put on display, and perhaps most amazingly, I got the sense that Mr. Briggs had truly connected with the tone and nuance of the author. I consider myself a proficient and creative reader, but no voice I could conjure in my head matched the pantheon of characters I met through Mr. Brigg’s reading. The same has become true of Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series as read by Steven Boyer, and I know that my mental reading voice fell a bit short, because after having listened to the first two books in the series, I grew impatient waiting for an audio version for The Isle of Blood and decided to read the book myself. I quickly found that the imperative “Snap to, Will Henry!” so perfectly capturing the voice, mannerism, and personality of Dr. Pelinore Warthrop rang false in my own head, no matter how it echoed Mr. Boyer’s version. I also found that where he slid smoothly around the complicated 19th Century sentence structure and unfamiliar syntax that make Mr. Yancey’s writing so remarkable, my brain was less agile, and while the story remained engrossing and the characters powerful, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing out. The descriptions may have been just as vivid, but the characters felt like a shadow of the vibrant personalities I had come to know. I tested my theory again, reading Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and while I enjoyed the story immensely, I couldn’t quench the nagging feeling that I would have enjoyed it more if it had been read to me by Mr. Briggs.

This lead me to wonder if there is an ideal format for different types of books. I listened to Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen at a teen patron’s insistance, and I really did feel that I had heeded the title’s advice nicely. Maybe I could have read it faster than the time it took me, listening over a few weeks’ commute to and from work to finish the story, but I doubt I would have enjoyed it more if I had chosen to read it rather than hear it.

There are also the rare books that I have enjoyed equally reading myself and listening to, most notably the Harry Potter series, excellently read by Jim Dale. I cherish Mr. Dale’s version of the story, the distinct personalities he gives to each character, and I often find myself re-listening to the books more than re-reading them … but the truth is, no matter how perfect the narration is, when it comes down to discovering who is going to win the battle for Hogwarts, I need to be the one in control of the pacing!

There are times when I feel I remember the details of a story more when I hear them read out loud (I’m thinking of one particular time in my car when an especially gory episode from The Mosntrumologist caused me to squeal out loud and turn down the volume, or of Tiny Cooper’s amazing musical numbers brought to life in the audiobook version of Will Grayson, Will Grayson). There have also been times when my mind drifts, when the narrator pronounces something oddly to my ears, or when my brain can’t keep the timeline of a historic nonfiction book organized and I long to be able to flip back and cross-reference events. The art of choosing which books to experience aurally is almost as tricky as the decisions narrators must surely make about how to perform a story and bring an author’s vision to life.

Do you listen to certain types of books? Do you have favorite readers the same way you have favorite authors? Do you miss knowing how character’s names are spelled when you’ve only ever heard them read out loud? And when do you listen to audiobooks? I’m curious. I am also 100% certain that I will never outgrow my love of having a story read out loud to me. And if it means I find myself parked in the driveway or circling the block one more time because I am at such a good part I can’t bear to leave the story, I know that the power of storytelling is alive and remains a special reader experience.

— Mia Cabana, currently reading Chime by Franny Billingsley

7 thoughts on “The Voices in My Head: Audiobooks and the reading experience”

  1. I agree with all of this! I’m almost finished with Libba Bray’s Diviners on audio and the narrator is knocking it out of the park with the 20’s slang and different New York accents. So much fun and terrifying.
    I also like to listen to nonfiction titles on audio. Although sometimes I will track down the print book to see if I missed any extras, like photos or maps. I find I’m more engaged listening where I can get bored reading nonfiction titles.
    And not to upset you but Dodger was incredible on audio. If they sold a version of the telephone book read by Stephen Briggs, I’d buy it and love it.

  2. Amanda, I can totally see how Diviners would be even more excellent as an audiobook! My one stumbling block when I read it was the 1920s slang sounding sort of false and unfamiliar in my own head, I bet a great narrator would have made it a totally different experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I agree with most of your reasons. Since I commute to work (around 45 minutes one way) I can get 1-2 discs done just driving. Also, I like to listen to audiobooks at work while I check e-mail and when I catalog (I tend to focus more and not get as distracted).

    If I listen to the audiobook of the first title in a series and it’s good, I like to get the rest of the series that way. Joseph Delaney’s series is really good. I agree with the names and foreign words reason you gave. I loved Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens; she’s a great narrator.

    I often listen to audiobooks (time permitting) to remind me of details of books I’ve already read to get ready for a sequel and/or the movie release.

  4. I also enjoyed The Diviners audiobook which I found on a Playaway. My daughter gave me a male-male plug so I could connect it to my car’s audio. I was inspired to see what other Playaways my library had and have been listening to and I am enjoying “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” – Adventures of a Curious Character. Luckily I am a bit of a math and science nerd so even if I don’t understand everything, I’m not put off by my own ignorance. The reader flew through the early years like a machine gun but he seems to have slowed down and mellowed a little around the time of Mrs. Feynman’s death and the first nuclear tests. I don’t know if it was intentional or not but it was noticeable.

  5. I love audiobooks! As a commuter and jogger, listening to stories makes the time fly by. I also tend to grab playaways on the shelf and “read” while I’m doing collection work in the stacks.

    One of my favorite narrators is Nick Podhel. His voices and pacing have made me love every book he has read to me. A few I’ve read via him: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Wonder by RJ Palacio, the Skinjacker series by Neal Shusterman, and my absolute favorite, the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness.

    1. To answer one of your other questions, I have gone back to books to see how characters names are spelled. I’ve listened to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld and when I was posting to a fellow reader on Facebook about the story I caught myself not knowing how to spell Deryn’s name correctly! I didn’t have the book on me so I referred to Goodreads.

      I have also been know to sit in my car one I’ve reached a destination to finish a track.

      One of the cons of audiobooks is not being able to back track very easily. Sometimes my mind wanders to other topics or I forget where the story left off. It’s easy to go back a couple paragraphs when reading print, but on audio it can be tricky and more time consuming to figure out where you got lost.

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