The Rise of the Audiobook

It seems like everyone’s talking about audiobooks these days.  Where it used to be only the bestsellers and classics got audio versions, now I can find as many as 75% of the books I search for at Audible.  Perhaps most importantly, they’ve gotten cheaper: on my particular membership plan, I pay less than $10 per audiobook.  Compare that to $50 for a whole stack of CDs (or, you know, the list price at Audible).  This year, I’m on track to listen to more than twice as many as last year.

Not that I don’t still read–I’m at 153 books this year and counting (as compared to 47 on audio).  But life is increasingly busy, and audiobooks have a distinct advantage for times like my daily commute, when a print or ebook would be hazardous in extreme (not to mention illegal).

What I like best about audiobooks

  • Making use of wasted time*
    I tend to feel guilty when I waste all my writing time curled up with someone else’s book.  With audiobooks, I can listen while driving, doing housework, exercising, or doing any other routine task that requires my eyes (which, lets face it, is just about everything).
    *AKA multitasking, which is also one of the biggest downsides.  More on this later…
  • Easy on the eyes
    I’m the kind of person who likes to keep busy.  Not necessarily active (writer-engineer, here), but my mind engaged.  I’m also a very visual person.  Unfortunately, I get chronic headaches, often triggered by eyestrain, that sometimes turn into month-long migraines.  If I can’t read, and I can’t write, and I can’t even mess around on the internet, then the next best thing is to lay down in a nice, dark room with an audiobook to keep me company.
  • Narration
    Sometimes audio versions of a book are just okay, equal or even inferior to the printed version.  But when the narration is right, they can be so much richer and more powerful.  I’m a fast reader, and I admit that means I often skim, taking in the words without taking the time to savor them.  Audiobooks force me to slow down and enjoy.

Of course, audiobooks aren’t all rainbows and unicorns.  For one thing, it can take a week or more to listen to a book that I could rip through in a day.  And that whole multitasking thing?  Yeah, sometimes that doesn’t work so well, and I end up missing whole chunks of the story.

As I’ve branched out into a more diverse selection of audiobooks, I’ve noticed that they seem to fall into several categories:

  • Old favorites
    For me, The Wheel of Time, Pride and Prejudice, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  These are the books I’ve read and re-read, and come back to listen to and love even more.  These are the best for multitasking, because I already know the story.
  • Slow and lyrical
    Books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.  They take their time, and linger over the details, so they really have time to sink in, even if I’m only half paying attention.  Plus, the prose is so beautiful, my attention is less likely to stray.
  • Transparent as glass
    Books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  The pace keeps clipping forward, but it’s all so clear and easy to understand that I hardly miss a word, no matter what I’m doing.
  • Fast-paced muddle
    These are the ones I have the most trouble keeping track of: sword and sorcery, space opera, and the like.  The fun adventure-y books that are great to read, but maybe not so easy to follow with half an ear.  Fortunately for me, I haven’t come across many in this category.
  • Bad narration
    Then, of course, there are those unfortunate books whose wonderful stories and lovely prose are rendered unlistenable by a bad narrator.  Dull, annoying, whatever the reason, their words just won’t stay in my head.  This is why it’s always a good idea to listen to the previews before buying.

Fortunately, I can’t remember the last time I came across an unlistenable audiobook, and I’ve actually thought twice about buying some books as gifts because I wasn’t sure if they would live up to their full awesomeness without the narration.  So, yeah.  I’m hooked.  I doubt I’ll ever give up reading paper/ebooks, but I’m pretty sure audiobooks are now a permanent part of my entertainment mix.