headphonesAny geek like myself who listens to podcasts has probably heard the advertisements for Audible.com, the Amazon property that sells audiobooks. Their ads seem to have become a fixture on these podcasts, naturally enough since people who listen to podcasts are likely to be the most predisposed to listening to books narrated for them.

After remaining mostly oblivious to these ads — indeed fast-forwarding past these same-sounding ones most of the time — they eventually tempted me enough to sign up for a trial Audible membership. Now, some three months later, it’s hard for me to imagine letting my membership lapse, so hooked have I become on audiobooks.

I had not only been oblivious to the ads but to the audiobooks themselves. Once in a while I would see a passing mention on a blog or somewhere to “listening to The Da Vinci Code while traveling cross-country” and similar, but those little sparks never took alight. And podcasts — well, I’ve been listening to those from not much longer after that word was birthed (2004 according to Wikipedia). But to listen to a book? It simply never occurred to me, or if it did, it never seemed like something I could, or would want to, do. Now, I have that how could I have not known about this before feeling commonly experienced when becoming attached or obsessed with something that heretofore barely registered in the consciousness.

Now, I’m a book lover but not necessarily a reading lover — I read more slowly than molasses and with an attention span prone to distractions that gets worse as I get older — so audiobooks solve or alleviate a couple of problems I experience with physical books:

Convenience

My commute is a short one (door-to-door, 35-40 minutes), and involves two walks (home-to-station, station-to-office), three different trains, and three shortish waits on platforms. It’s a stop-start journey not conducive to reading a book (the printed kind). Also, some of those trains are too crowded with fellow commuters to allow one to hold a book comfortably and you can forget about holding anything other than a slim-ish paperback at that. So, roughly 20-plus minutes of distracted, stop/start book reading versus 35-40 minutes of more or less seamless audiobook listening — there’s no contest really, the audiobook wins hands down.

Space Saving But Not Necessarily Cost Saving

Audiobooks also have great potential to help me cure — or maybe curb is the better word — my predilection for buying books, books I often end up not reading. I recently learned that there is a Japanese word for this affliction, tsundoku (積ん読), which Sanseido’s Wisdom dictionary defines as “buying books and just piling them up without reading”. (On a side note, Japanese does seem to contain some very specific words and phrases that fit me to a tee — mikka bouzu (三日坊主) is another.)

Japanese photo booksNow you would think that being in Japan without easy access to English-language books would have reigned in this bad habit, but the reality is that when I’m on vacation back in the States, or through various “book fairs” here where book importers sell-off remaindered titles for very reasonable prices, not to mention the availability of any book through Amazon Japan (with free shipping no less), my unread book collection rivals the one I (shudder) got rid of when I moved here 11 years ago from San Francisco. And, being an online purveyor of Japanese photo books, I now have an equally impressive collection of photography books the shelves are quite literally heaving.

That said, the audiobook listener is not immune from the dangers of having eyes bigger than one’s stomach. Because of the way the Audible membership plan I’m on works out, I get one “credit” per month to spend on any book I choose, no matter the price. (For this, I spend $14.95 per month as a membership fee, so it’s not a free credit as might be implied.) As it seemed to take me about two weeks to listen to a 10-14 hour book — judging by the frequency with which a few of the Audible reviewers that I follow post reviews, it would seem that I’m a “slow” listener — initially I used a credit to get one book and spent money to purchase a second one. I thought this would help prevent me from becoming an audiobook tsundoku as well. Unfortunately, a massive April $9.95 sale shot that plan to hell, and I now have about ten audiobooks on my hard drive that I haven’t listened to. Now, at around 100-150 MB each, this is not a big problem, space-wise. The bigger problem is that, just as with the unread printed books I have, those I haven’t gotten to yet have lost their new car smell, even more so as they’ve essentially been reduced to a file name.

Despite their benefits — or because of them? — I still have my doubts about audiobooks. Those doubts can be summed up by the thought, something this good can’t be healthy. As with a lot of conveniences, I wonder if I’m not somehow missing something. There is a certain ephemerality about an audiobook, that once a passage has passed through my ears it’s gone. Though I haven’t tried, I can’t imagine scrubbing through one to find said passage, let alone to quote from it. For someone old enough to remember blackened hands after reading a newspaper, or the gut-wrenching disappointment upon discovering a scratch in his LP, or the ca-ching of a carriage return on a typewriter, tangible things still hold an incredible amount of attraction for me, even as slowly but surely I have replaced those things with RSS feeds, mp3s, and a writing app on my iPad. Audiobooks fall within this bittersweet pattern.

Somewhat sillier, I struggle for how to refer to this new (to me) way of “reading”, hence the scare quotes around that very word. Can I rightly say in conversation “Oh, I’ve read that book” when in fact no actual reading was involved? What kind of looks would I get if I said to someone, “Oh, I really enjoyed listening to that book.”? Will my conversation always be cluttered with qualifiers like “Well, actually I didn’t read it, I listened to it”? A semantically troubling worry, but one that also betrays a fear that the other party would view “I listened to the audiobook version” as only slightly less offensive than “I read the Cliffs Notes for it.”

One definite casualty of this newfound interests is that I no longer have time (or much interest, frankly) in podcasts, and have ceased listening to any of them sans one (the Guardian’s Football Weekly). So I’m no longer as up-to-date on the various Apple and other geekery I used to get via various 5by5 podcasts, the assorted zombie ephemera gleaned from any of three different Walking Dead podcasts I used to listen to, nor as up-to-date on Major League Baseball as ESPN’s daily baseball podcast used to keep me. Oh well, I’ll survive.

Some Recommendations

I won’t go through all the audiobooks I’ve read (if you’re curious, you can see a list of them at Library Thing), but in case you are looking to take the plunge, I can recommend the following:

Heft, by Liz Moore
This has been the most enjoyable audiobook I have thus far listened to, and indeed I would say that this is a great example of what an audiobook can be. The book features two different narrators, Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka, for the two major characters in the book who speak in the first person, and each character is so brilliantly portrayed by their respective narrator that at times this feels more like a radio play than an audiobook. Of all the books I’ve listened to so far, this has been by far the most riveting. It also happens to be about themes and situations that rub very close to the bone. It’s almost unremittingly sad and yet uplifting too.

Cooked by Michael Pollan
This is Pollan’s newest book, and he himself reads it. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago, and loved the way Pollan could discuss the politics of food without ever becoming strident, and Cooked is no different. His narration is very easy-going, yet still manages to allow his passions to come to the fore. Surely not all authors make good readers of their own material, but Pollan most definitely is one.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene
This 1951 Greene novel is read by actor Colin Firth. While I had some problems with the novel — I’m not a big fan of overly religious themes — what makes this audiobook is actor Colin Firth’s narration. If every book requiring a British male voice was read by Firth, I would die a very happy audiobook listener.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
This bleak but incredibly heartfelt novel is made all the more so by Tom Stechschulte’s brilliant narration. Nothing much happens story-wise — even more so for me, having seen the film adaptation first — but the whole thing is riveting. Of course McCarthy is responsible for much of that, but Stechschulte deserves some credit as well. His narration of McCarthy’s early novel Child of God is equally brilliant. What I said above about Firth doing every British male voice I could also say about Stechschulte for American male voices.

Of the 10 books I’ve read (er, listened to) so far, I’ve only experienced one dud, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, narrated by John Lee. While Lee is certainly an accomplished narrator, he decided to read any quote attributed to a German in a faux-German accent, any quote from a Frenchman in a faux-French accent, and so on. It really was B-movie stuff, and detracted horribly from any pleasure I might have gained from the book (and Tuchman uses a lot of direct quotes from the various combatants). That, and the fact that the book was just far too detailed to follow along in audio format, made this a less than enjoyable experience, one I couldn’t wait to end. The experience gives me pause when considering other history books, which is too bad since the genre is one of my favorites.

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