The Sound of Reading

Listening to Audio Books.


I recently underwent a procedure on my eyelids, which meant I had to have cold or warm compresses over my eyes for hours at a time. In anticipation of this debilitating circumstance, I realized that I needed something to occupy my mind while waiting to heal. The obvious answer was audio books. With them, I could concentrate on something other than my discomfort while prone and under the compresses.

Choosing the books:

My choice of books was somewhat eclectic. First, I decided, why not go for an older book that I’d always wanted to read, but never got around to – something classic that I was ashamed to say I hadn’t read. The perfect choice for that was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (filling yet another hole in my literary intellectual intelligence). I also went looking for something funny, which quickly led me to Bossypants by Tina Fey. Finally, I thought that borrowing a book that I wasn’t sure about to begin with, but one that still piqued my interest, would be another good choice. This brought me to Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Regardless of my opinions of these books, I thought my readers might be interested in my feelings about the listening experience as opposed to the reading experience.

The Voices:

First, you should understand that I’m a visual person, which is the main reason why I’ve never been tempted to try audio books until now. Second, because of my mild dyslexia, I tend to read slower than most people do, at about the same pace that you would read aloud. This together with my dabbling in the theater when I was younger means I tend to give my own interpretation of the characters and narrators’ voices. This one will sound gruff, that one will sound light and lilting, and so forth. The idea of having one voice read all the characters was therefore something that put me off the entire idea of audio books.

I have to admit, however, that this last problem bothered me less than I thought it would. Of course, Tina Fey reading her own memoir Bossypants was perfect because in any case, I would have imagined her voice while reading it myself. Claire Danes reading The Handmaid’s Tale also sounded right to me, since her character on Homeland always sounds paranoid and desperate, with all the intermittent times of happiness or joy with an edge of strain and disbelief behind them. With all due respect, I was the least pleased with Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon’s performance as the voice of “Scout” (aka Jean Louise Finch) in Go Set a Watchman. The biggest problem was with her voice for Atticus Finch, which gave me the distinct impression of her trying to imitate Gregory Peck’s speech patterns from his iconic film portrayal of the role. I also felt that there were times when Jean Louise lost some of her southern drawl. I’ll assume she allowed this to happen since the character has been living in New York for a while, and this might have happened to her naturally. However, when this bled over in a couple of spots to other characters, I had to be less forgiving.

Reverse and Rewind:

Interpretation aside, there were some things about listening to an audio book that weren’t completely to my liking. For example, one thing that bothered me was the automatic rewind function. This means that when you stop or pause in your reading, the program rewinds a few seconds so the next time you start reading you hear a few lines of what the reader has already read before you hit pause or stop. I understand the reason for this. However, this rewind tended to confuse me somewhat. Perhaps there are better apps than the two I tried that let you adjust these things. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to do this, and when taking up the book after a pause, going back to something I’d already heard was disorienting. This is certainly something that never happens in print or eBooks, since we see where we were when we put the book down. When taking that book up again, while we might quickly scan previously read text, our brains bring us back to where we had left off.


In addition, when I wanted to re-hear something I’d just listened to, I didn’t like how either of the apps I used worked. Rewinding as much as one minute is a whole lot of text. Rewinding 10 seconds works better, but more often than not, you start re-listening from the middle of a sentence. Don’t even try to go back to the beginning of a chapter unless you’ve figured out how to set bookmarks for every one of them (I didn’t). True, eBooks also aren’t ideal when you want to re-read earlier parts of your stories, but with audio books, this is much worse. This is why print books will always win out when you’re the type of person who likes to re-read parts of books, or just go back to reference something (a name, a clue, an incident). However, if you like pulling quotes from books, I’d say eBooks are the best – especially if your app or eReader has a highlighting function. Of course, with print books you can use a marker or pencil or simply stick in a bookmark. With audio books, if you don’t write them down (or use your app as a transcriber), you’re not going to be able to keep note of your favorite quotes at all.

No reader is an Island:

I also have to say that of all the forms of books, audio books are the most anti-social. What I mean by this is that if you’re reading a print or eBook, and the phone rings or someone wants to talk to you, you just lift your head and go on with it. When the conversation ends, you simply go back to your reading. When the same thing happens while listening to an audio book, you have to put your app on pause, and take off your earphones to relate to whoever wants your attention. That, of course, kicks in the rewind and if you’re like me, you might get annoyed at the interruption of your flow of listening. In addition, unless you’re alone, or people around you are used to your listening to these books and cutting off the rest of the world, they tend to talk at you when you’re concentrating on listening (invariably at an important part in the story). In my case, removing (and replacing) my eye compresses exacerbated the unplugging, pausing, and rewinding business. Of course, if you ignore people around you, they’ll get annoyed with you. Then again, if you’re out in public among strangers, ambient noise might also disturb your listening and concentration.

Holding on:

On the other hand, one thing that surprised me was that I feel I retained most of what I heard, or certainly at a rate that was higher than I had expected. After two weeks, I can still hear Reese, Tina and Claire in my mind, saying things that remind me of lines and scenes in these books, which is certainly a good thing. However, being the visual person I am, I know that if I had read print or eBook versions of these books, I’d remember more of what I read. What’s more, I’d have the ability to go back and look over favorite passages or remind myself of details I might not have retained during the first reading.

When all is said and done, while it seems to me that audio books do have their positives (such as something to keep you occupied when you can’t open your eyes for hours at a time), overall, I don’t think that they’re ever going to be my format of choice. Of course, if I ever need to be hours under eye compresses again, I’ll certainly not eschew them as a viable way to while away the quiet hours (but you’d better be quite while I’m listening).

What about you? Do you like audio books, and if so, do you like listening to them more or less than you enjoy reading print or eBooks?

(Photos courtesy of Pixabay.)

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