Of Audio Books and Guilty Pleasures…

Posted By Pamela on May 24, 2008 | 18 comments

It is spring (or at least pretending to be spring in the middle of the country. Temperatures are in the 70s F (low 20s C), flowers are in bloom, and the birds are LOUD. For me spring means 2 things: no more classes and lots of weeding. It also means that I have time to explore new books. I say explore because I’m actually more likely to listen to audio books then to read physical books now a days. There, I said it, I listen to books. Please don’t hate me for it.

This isn’t to say I don’t like reading paper books. Back when I had a subway commute (which I actually miss for many reasons), I’d chew through a couple books a month. Now, I don’t have those random minutes for paper books except when I fly (or ride the subway in London). What I have instead is a lot of time for audio books. While I weed / plant / otherwise mutate our yard to fit my whims, I am generally bored. I enjoy the physical labor and the outcomes, but while I work outside my brain drifts off in impatient circles, as it contemplates all the desk tasks I should be doing instead of being out in the sun. The best way I know to silence these “To Do” list daemons is to stuff my head first with podcasts, and then with Audio books. Faced with something interesting to pay attention to, the voices in my head generally settle in to voyage with characters of fiction across lands of fantasy.

The thing is, there are those among us who view listening to audio books as somehow less then actually reading. I know professors who don’t approve of any but the visually impaired listening to books. I know people who scoff at the dyslexic lawyer as being less educated because he listened to his law books. I don’t understand this. If you hear every single word – if you listen to an unabridged book – aren’t you receiving all the same content? The only thing that is different is that you don’t create all the characters voices for yourself – the narrator determines the voices for you. But is that such a tragic loss? Aren’t there times when I can gain from the nuanced voice an artistry of rhythm that I might miss if I read quickly to myself? It is a different experience, and there are books that I need to read on paper so I can mark my thoughts, but is different always bad?

Listening to books has always been a guilty pleasure for me. As a small child, my grandmother recorded a bunch of books on audio cassettes for me and I’d listen to them and other books on tape as I lay in bed looking at my nightlight shaped as a dancer. As an older child, when my family went on road trips my dad would put audio books in the car’s tape player and we’d make our way across America while listening to the “Day of the Triffid,” “The Adventures of Sherlock Holms,” and various Star Trek books on tape. As an adult, I felt confident trekking across the country alone by car because I new I had company; The BBC’s audio rendition of “Lord of the Rings” could get me from Austin to Albuquerque and almost back again, and Toni Morrison and Anne Rice both (in very different ways) called shot gun as I went back and forth from McDonald Observatory. I made it through all of Steve King’s Dark Tower series while packing to move to Illinois, and I tried not to cry listening to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while I walked the beach in Hawaii last year, alone except for my words and the sky. Books flavor the places I listen to them – Shalimar the Clown helped me create a brick patio, and Eragorn‘s magic sustained me as I hung insulation in the attic. I wouldn’t have been able to experience these books if I hadn’t been able to listen to them while my body experienced and did other things. Audio liberated me to “read” in a way I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

And I wish I understood better the bigotry against “reading” audio books.

For now though, let me say, when I advertise Audible.com on Astronomy Cast, I’m advertising a company I’ve had a membership with (with a couple no-spare-cash induced breaks) for about 4 years, and PodioBooks has excellent content that in some cases can’t be found anywhere else. Next time you are out of podcasts and you have a day of brainless tasks ahead of you, take a book out into the yard to play.


  1. The BBC rendering of “The Lord of the Rings.” Oh Gods!

    I can actually say that program changed my life. And it was that program that I measured the Jackson films against!

    It played a significant part in where I went to college, in fact.

    For me the BBC LOTR was broadcast from WRVO in Oswego, NY when I lived about 100km away in Rome around 1980 when I was 15. We barely got the station, and I taped all the episodes over the air. I crashed the car one night, but still managed to tape that night’s episode.

    I remember mowing lawns and singing “The Lay of Gil Galhad” at the top of my little voice while doing so. (Amazingly, William AULD did such a good job in his translation of the Trilogy into Esperanto that I can sing the translation to the exact same tune they used for the BBC!)

    When I applied for colleges SUNY Oswego was on the list, and part of the reason it was there was that this was where the Trilogy had been broadcast from. When I got there I even applied for a radio job at WRVO, but didn’t get it.

    For years those tapes went with me everywhere. It’s only in the last 3 years that I replaced them with .mp3s in fact.

    Wow! Memories! 🙂

    Now I don’t do audio books. Just haven’t tried them, honestly. The impression I get is that they are just some “famous” name reading the book to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially how you seem to use them certainly, but I don’t have an attraction to that.

    The BBC LOTR wasn’t an audio book in my mind – it was a radio play. Now, if you’re going to tell me that audio books are done like the BBC LOTR was, well, ummm, you may have just made an instant fan, but that is not my impression of how the vast majority of them are done.

    Gil-Galad estis elfa reƒù’…

  2. I guess it’s more of a style that people prefer. I would “read” audible books since it allows my eyes to relax for a moment, but I never felt comfortable with them. I always like to read sentences and passages over and over until I understand them, so audible books are a bit lacking for me. But this doesn’t mean audible books are wrong, they are a fine passion to enjoy if that’s your preference. Don’t be “guilty” about it.

  3. I’m a comic book artist, and I’ve also found my time for paper books (as much as I’ve reading them) has been limited lately, so I’ve been listening to audio books in a big way too, especially since I can listen while I work, and I get through tons! I’m beginning to run out of material, so thanks for the links 😀
    If you’re into LotR and liked the BBC one, I’d recommend Rob Inglis’ unabridged audio recording of the whole trilogy it’s fantastic and very characterful (if a bit expensive).
    I’ve also been listening to Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos, your Astronomy Cast (which I’ve been enjoying immensely), and I’ve even discovered a plugin for Firefox which uses microsoft’s auto-voice to read out highlighted text so I can read blogs and forums while I work too. I love the internet.

  4. Addition: I come across the same bigotry with regards to comics. It seems to be ‘obvious’ to some people that comics are a lesser form of literature because they have pictures, without even realising that they themselves are often visually illiterate and would miss hundreds of nuances and the finer structure of visual grammar if they read a well made comic.
    It’s just because people are over dependant on the written word for both information and imagination. It’s an academic conceit that a perfect understanding of writing is all that’s needed intellectually. There’s a whole world of performance and image out there to be learned about, and your brain just isn’t as rich without it in my opinion.

  5. I don’t think there’s anything inherently inferior about audiobooks, but the big difference between them and paper books is that if you miss something, or if your mind wanders, or you have trouble understanding a certain passage, with a paper book you can go back and reread it until you’re sure you’ve got the content, which is why I prefer them (but I’m easily distracted).

    I will admit a personal prejudice toward paper books–I find I have far better retention of things like plot and information when I read rather than listen to things.

  6. I wonder how much of our societies prejudice against audio books comes from not understanding different learning styles and personal bandwidths. I personally find that I can’t listen to non-fiction audio books because those are books where I do pause to re-read. At the same time, I have a bad habit of falling into fiction such that I don’t notice the world (I got myself in trouble more then once for reading after finishing in-class school assignments and starting to read – I’d be reading and just not notice the class had moved on to new tasks!) I can fall into audio as well as I can fall in to written words, and plow for with an intensity that leaves no room for re-reading. We each look at the world through different mental filters.

    Doc – You should try listening to “Eragorn.” I think you’d like it in a Harry Potter kind of way. Most narrators aren’t famous. They are just voice actors (or the authors themselves in some cases!) trying to make a living. The voices on “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “The Time Travel’s Wife” were both able to add to the story.

  7. How wonderful to find another audible listener. Via books on tape and now, my Ipod, my commute (45 minutes) back and forth to work is a pleasure instead of a pain. I started over 15 years ago, and figure I have “read” close to 500 books in this manner. The truly excellent readers can add a depth to the narrative that rivals any movie. The pause that emphasizes a line, the scornful tone that directs your understanding of a scene, all the nuances of fine acting can be found there. Additionally, I find as I read a paper book, I tend to skip sections. With audible, every word is there.
    Like you, I use audible.com. They really do have thousands of titles. If you enjoy reading you can’t help but find something of interest.

  8. We’re still reading aloud to our teenage kids at bedtime. “Dune” currently. We read all the Harry Potter books aloud including the last one outside in the yard at my Mom’s so that all of us got through it simultaneously. We’ve read all the Asimov Foundation and robot books to them. But the kids also read a lot of paper. They are required to have books at school for quiet moments. When we take long car trips, someone’s driving, and someone’s reading. Now, the reader can be one of the kids.

    I burn podcasts to rewriteable CDs and listen to them in the car. There are times when I need to pay more attention to the driving or need to hear an explanation again. So I just rewind the CD a bit and listen again.

    Thanks for the nudge to reconsider audiobooks.

  9. Hi Pamela,

    First, thanks for the shout-out! Now to twist Plait’s arm and get him to record Bad Astronomy for us. 🙂

    Like you, I’m a reader of books and a listener of audiobooks. I’ve found plenty of print-books that I couldn’t get into reading, but then found the audio version sucked me in completely. Inversely, I just finished reading a print book that I *loved*, even though I canceled the podiobook-version halfway through the first chapter.

    Again, thanks for the mention of Podiobooks.com. It’s much appreciated!

    Evo Terra

  10. Like you, I’ve found that listening to an audio book helps make not-so-fun activities like weeding, cleaning the bathroom and ironing a little more bearable. At least it takes your mind off the task at hand and helps me feel like I’m enriching my brain in some way! Besides, who doesn’t love to be read to?! And don’t feel bad that audiobooks are all you can fit into your schedule. A librarian once told me, “Never apologize for your tastes in reading!” Good advice to follow.

  11. I like audio books for two reasons. First, I sit at work for 10-12 hours a day in front of a computer, so reading is out of the question apart from audio books. Second, I read too fast. If I turn around and look in my library, I’ll see somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 thousand dollars worth of books. Reading is an expensive habit, especially when you can read through a 300 page book in a day or two. With audio books, I can just let it run at a much more measured pace than I would read it myself. That said, I’ll always prefer a well put together hardcover than any other form of book, but I can’t afford to feed my habit nearly as much as I’d like. If it wasn’t for Audible and Podiobooks, I’d be even poorer than I already am.

  12. Audiophiles have no need for guilt. If I limited myself to visual reading, I would read very little. But I have tons of time to multi-task with audio reading – brushing teeth, shaving, treadmill, exercise, walking, driving (no different than listening to the radio…but better…my choices). Just with these examples, I’ve listened to well over a hundred books and hundreds of podcasts (including Astronomy Cast). Much of what I listen to is non-fiction – science stuff, to be more precise, including histories of scientists such as Galileo and Einstein and lectures, such as the Feynman Lectures on Physics series. I have audio read several books more than once, partly to reinforce what is being taught (e.g. Fabric of the Cosmos, E=MC2, Entanglement). Occasionally, I will buy the paper book just to have the diagrams (These need to be made available online! BTW, some audio books do make the diagrams available online, such as Francis Collins, The Language of God).
    One final comment for the critics: we learn through all of our senses, we should not limit ourselves by precluding the use of one or more of them out of sheer habit.

  13. I listen to audio books on my 45 minute commute and love it. I’ve listened to well over 300 books on my drives to and from work.

    I’ve bought hardbacks I wanted to read but couldn’t find the time for – then bought and throughly enjoyed the audio copy. Nonfiction is harder, and science texts are tough, in audio.

    I reserve podcasts Like “AstronomyCast” and “Quirks and Quarks”) for the treadmill, where I don’t have to divide my attention with traffic.

  14. Great blog post. I look forward to reading more from you 🙂

  15. Tom Cruise have dyslexia and yet he is still a very successful actor.;..

  16. there are many famous persons with dyslexia and it is not a debilitating disease. Tom Cruise is known to be dyslexic ~;-

  17. Listening to audio books is practical and it meets the busy lifestyle of contemporary people. You can tune in to your favorite books anytime anywhere, while you are walking, sh… The popularity of iPod and MP3 players has raised the marketplace of audiobooks in recent years. Some book publishers also believed that audio books could outsell paperback books or e-books one day. Indeed, this pattern is clear if you think about some great benefits of audio books over paperback books. ,

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  18. The evolution and use of audiobooks in Germany closely parallels that of the US. A special example of its use is the West German Audio Book Library for the Blind, founded in 1955. Actors from the municipal theater in Münster recorded the first audio books for the visually impaired in an improvised studio lined with egg cartons. .:,:

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