Audiobooks and their Unexpected Side Effects
I take back everything I said a few months ago about audiobooks not really being for me. I was wrong. So very, very wrong. Turns out, I love audiobooks — as long as they’re good. (Crazy, right?)
I gave the genre another try when I started running regularly at the beginning of the year. I needed something to distract me from the horribleness that is running (music doesn’t really work for me), and I’d been wanting to re-read the Hunger Games books, so I decided to try listening to the audio versions of the books while I trudged through my thrice-weekly 30-minutes on the treadmill. And, what do you know, I was hooked. I tore through the trilogy, listening not only when I ran but also in my car during my commute, and immediately started seeking out more. I’ve had some hits and misses, but overall, audiobooks have won me over. They’re pretty much the only thing I listen to in my car anymore (I can’t stand the radio), and I look forward to taking up running again after this kid’s born, if only for the opportunity to listen to more books.
What it comes down to, I’ve learned, is this: The reader can (and will) totally make or break an audiobook. It can be the best writing in the world, but if the reader sucks? Sorry, not going to listen. A good reader, on the other hand, will completely transform a book for me. I’ve listened to a couple of books recently — The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak — whose readers were so good, I could have listened to them forever. Sure, the stories were well written, captivating, enjoyable, etc. But those readers, man. I would listen to them read to me all day, every day, no matter the material. (I can’t tell you how excited I am for my audio copy of The Dream Thieves, sequel to The Raven Boys, to come available at the library. I didn’t even consider reading that one in print, knowing how good the audio will be.)
On the flip side, I’ve also encountered to a couple of books with, well…sub-par readers (that’s putting it nicely). One book, which I don’t even remember the title of because it was so bad I abandoned it after about 20 minutes, sounded like it was being read by a computer. Like someone fed the text into some voice software, and the computer spit an audio version back out. Terrible. Just terrible.
The toughest ones, though, are the ones whose readers are just okay. I got most of the way through a YA trilogy with mediocre, angsty readers before my library copy expired and I decided it wasn’t worth renewing. It wasn’t so bad that I gave up before my copy expired, but it also wasn’t worth going to the trouble of re-checking it out just to finish the story. I recently started Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and I just couldn’t get into it, which surprised me since so many people whose literary opinions I tend to agree with have been raving about it. I’ll probably give that one another try in print to see if it was the story or the audio that wasn’t working for me. I’m considering doing the same with Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy. I listened to the first one on audio, and it was fine, but I didn’t love it the way I’d loved the other books of hers I’d listened to. (The Scorpio Races was another EXCELLENT audiobook. So good.) Maybe I’ll continue the series in print and see if that helps.
Anyway, what I’m trying to get to, in a totally roundabout way, is this: I love audiobooks, but I’ve found that they bring with them a couple of unexpected side effects.
Side Effect Number 1: You know how sometimes you’re reading, and you see a word, and in your head that word sounds a certain way, but then you hear someone say it and realize you’ve been pronouncing it wrong in your head? Turns out a similar — but opposite — phenomenon can happen with audiobooks. On more than one occasion I’ve gone online to look up something about a book I’ve listened to, see a word (usually a character’s name), and think “Hey, they spelled that wrong.” Then I catch myself and realize, nope, that’s actually how it’s spelled. The author did not, in fact, spell her own character’s name wrong. It’s a strange thing, realizing you have to adjust your mental picture of how a person’s name should look in print. It caught me completely by surprise the first time it happened.
Side Effect Number 2: I’m surprisingly hesitant to recommend books I’ve loved on audio to people who aren’t likely to listen to audiobooks. It comes back to the discussion above about how strong an effect the reader has on my enjoyment of the book. I’ll start to recommend a book, but then I second-guess myself: What if the excellent reader was main reason I loved it? What if it’s not as good in print? After all, if a bad reader can kill an otherwise good book, isn’t it possible — probable, even — that the opposite could happen, too? Obviously some books are so bad that not even the best reader could save them, but what about all the other books out there? If I had read The Raven Boys in print, would I be as quick to rave about how much I loved it? Or did I mostly just love listening to Will Patton read it to me?
I recently took a deep breath and swallowed my self-doubt when I gave my sister-in-law paperback copies of both The Raven Boys and The Scorpio Races for her birthday. She and I tend to enjoy the same books (she’s the one who first introduced me to The Hunger Games), so I’m cautiously optimistic that she’ll enjoy these. Fingers crossed that she enjoys the print versions as much as I enjoyed listening to them on audio.
How about you: Do you love audiobooks? Have you encountered any unexpected side effects from listening to books on audio vs. reading them in print? And, because I’m always on the hunt for another great audiobook: What’s the best book you’ve listened to lately?