Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 2 March 2014

Is listening to books different from reading them? by Jenny Harper

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Once upon a long time ago, audiobooks used to be just for the visually impaired – but that's all changed. Now it's big business and everyone listens for a different reason.

For many, listening is a great way of passing the tedious hours of commuting. Others find audiobooks calming while they drive. Some plug in while walking the dog, or jogging, or at the gym, or doing housework.

For myself, I started listening to books at night, when I couldn't sleep. In those days I ran a business and was far more stressed than I realised. I started trying to escape my worries by tuning in to the World Service, but I found that if music came on it woke me up. There's something incredibly soothing and restful about the sound of the human voice. I invested in a CD player and took myself off to the local library, where the choice was rather limited. Because of that, I found myself listening to genres and books I would never normally have chosen, which certainly widened my horizons!

There are many disadvantages to CDs though. If you came to the end of one, you had to wake up enough to find the next one and change over, all in the dark so as not to wake up a slumbering partner. Sleep – the ultimate goal – receded further.

Then came the iPod, and a whole new necessary range of skills. Now it's easy to download books right onto the device, and the choice is staggering. But if you do fall asleep, you have to try to discover exactly where you were at the time. I've had some interesting experiences – I once listened to most of a Poirot before realising I had missed the murder!

Which brings me to the whole experience of listening, rather than reading.

It's hard to skip over bits you think might bore you – long descriptive passages, for example – in order to 'get on with' the story. You just don't know what vital clues you might be missing. It's hard to flick back to something you might want to listen to again, because locating it is difficult. So, rather as on a Kindle, you have to keep going forward. This makes some titles almost impossible to listen too (for me): Wolf Hall was one such book. I just couldn't get to grips with who was talking or what had happened when.

These are, perhaps, small negatives, but there are huge positives too. A good reader can bring a book to life. A great reader can be entrancing. You can find books on Audible (the site I subscribe to) by narrator as well as by author or title or genre, so it's possible to find great new books you might never have tried before. (On the flipside, of course, an irritating reader can kill a book stone dead.)

You are kind of forced to listen to the words as the author meant them to be perused, ie, all of the words. The work takes on a different dimension. If you listen, as I do, while trying to get to sleep, you will inevitably miss bits and have to listen to parts again while trying to find where you were (I set my auto switch off to 30 minutes so I am never too far adrift). So you get to know some bits quite well!

The other downside for me is that if the story becomes too gripping, I get caught up in it rather than getting to sleep! But that's because of my own listening proclivities.

In my opinion, it's a completely different experience from reading, but adds another dimension, and a very welcome one.

What do others think?

16 comments:

  1. Really interesting, Jenny. I have to say I've never listened to audiobooks, except when the children had them in the car and then they annoyed me because they intruded into my own thought (but that was because I didn't choose the books).

    I think I would find that the pace of my reading would be too forced. Sometimes I like to stop and read a paragraph a second or even a third time, either because `i didn't understand it or because I loved it so much. Audiobooks take that away form you, I think. But maybe I should give them a try. Any recommendations?

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    1. Well it's very easy to wind back a little on an iPod, Jennifer. Though maybe not if you're almost asleep. Otherwise, you just pull the bar back a bit with your finger or tap the 15-second auto return a few times... Not easy to scribble notes on though!

      One of the best I listened to was The Help. It was read by four voices and was brilliant. I've read classics such as Barchester Towers and thrillers. Rosamunde Pilcher, Lesley Pearse, Marian Keyes and Maeve Binchy (I love the Irish accent), Ken Follett - a few - Robert Goddard, Jojo Moyes, Rosie Thomas, Mary Wesley, Sophie Hannah, Christina Courtenay, MM Kaye, William Boyd - pretty eclectic! Agatha Christie is guaranteed to get me to sleep if all else fails!

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  2. This makes me think I should try listening to audio books again, something I haven't done since using them to silence squabbling off-spring on long car journeys. Unlike Jennifer, I actually rather enjoyed that - or maybe just the calming influence it had. I seem to remember 'Kidnapped' was particularly good for that!

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    1. Give it a go. I've 'read' a huge number of books I wouldn't otherwise have tried. I've also enjoyed non fiction, by the way. Especially At Home, by Bill Bryson, and A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval Britain. Great suff!

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  3. I listen to audio books all the time. It's the best thing since sliced bread. I have only ditched two books - Lady Susan by Austen, because it was structured too complexly for easy listening, and some paranormal book that was just a bit boring (I don't bore easily). I got on to it from a friend in Boston who borrowed cds from the library for his commute. In the Boston Public LIbrary System, they have a huge collection that you can download for 2 weeks, 7 books at a time - BUT you can put on a player or a cd forever. I still load up with my old card though I've been back in Europe for 3 years! I really recommend it. I listen while I commute, do housework and walk. For the classics it's perfect. Hardy, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, are all a joy to listen to. War and Peace - a few weeks and done. El Quixote, David Copperfield, ... I could go on and on. Books that take a long time to find time to read, you go through really quickly. One slight drawback is that because of the connection of place with storytelling, you can be walking down a street and remember the passage of a book you were listening to the last time you were doing there (I used to remember Adam Bede every time I cleaned my old bath in Boston...). I'll never try listening to Joyce, but I just finished American Pastoral and I am on The Secret History now. I'd never get the time for half the books without it! I have fallen asleep now and then, but I don't listen to them to go asleep to. They're usually broken up into pieces, so you can flip through to see what sounds familiar - if you're one of those people who can recall the story easily enough...

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  4. Hi David - I absolutely agree about getting through books you'd never normally read. It's great you've revisited so many of the classics, I must go back and try a few more myself. War and Peace on audio - wow! And it's really interesting what you say about the Boston Public Library, thanks for the tip. And thanks for dropping by!

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  5. I've never listened to audio books, Jenny, but reading your post has made me think I'm missing out on something. When travelling any distance in the car the DH and I listen to radio plays which he records for journeys.
    I know you say your listen to help you get to sleep. Do you listen during the day or do you still prefer to read when you are not rying to sleep?

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  6. I don't often listen during the day, Mary, I still read books (if I can grab enough time away from writing them!). I do plug in my ipod if I go out for a power walk by myself, though. Fortuitously, my circuit takes half an hour, so I set the timer and go. I make myself be back before the book switches itself off, which keeps my speed up!

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  7. Interesting blog that raises some important points. I read books all the time but rarely listen to them being read, unless it is on R4 while I'm working. I do enjoy listening for short bursts, but find that it cuts through my imagination. Often the reader/s don't sound like the characters in my head, especially if the reader is British or American reading an international book. I have to say that is slowly being addressed though - I listened to The Help on R4 which was read was in four voices and very appropriate. I also enjoy the 'action' of reading a book - going over some passages more than once, looking up unusual words, reading the biog / intro / prelude / after notes etc., looking at the covers... and there is also the fact that when reading a book I am solely focused on it and don't dilute my experience of it by doing something else at the same time. Reading is my own time.

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  8. Sure - as I said, it's a different experience. For myself, it enables me to get through about 20 more books a year than I wold manage if I weren't listening as well as reading. Sometimes I buy the book afterwards, if I like it enough (I occasionally do the same with books I've read on Kindle). That gives me the best of all worlds!

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  9. Very interesting post, Jenny, although I'm still not tempted to listen to books! But I don't listen to the radio either, apart from music, so it's probably something to do with how we like to gain information. I go for the visual every time.

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  10. Interesting – because I am a strongly 'visual' person. But I love the sound of words...

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  11. Interesting post, Jenny, and such varied comments. I remember you encouraging me to try audio books and I did try one but it didn't hit the spot. After reading your post and the comments, I'm tempted to give them another go.

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  12. Obviously not for everyone, Joan!

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  13. Coming a little late to the party, Jenny, but congratulations on a great post. As many of you will know I can't do audio but I do have a comment on audio .....my son-in-law is severely dyslexic and reading for him is total agony, and with a full time job and a young family, he just doesn't have the time to persevere with the written word. So audio it is for him. I'm sure there must be many people in this situation.....a selling point for the audio industry perhaps?

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  14. I'd never thought of that, Linda. What a great way to access books if you have that particular challenge in life!

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