I seem to know a lot of people who read (listen to) audio books. They often report what they’ve been listening to, and in addition to my interest in the books they discuss, I’m always interested too in their comments on the narrators — who make a big difference, of course, to the overall experience, adding a dimension that’s not present when we read books to ourselves “silently.” (I put “silently” in scare-quotes because I wonder if we are in fact “hearing” the words in our heads in some way, if that makes sense — we do always talk about “voice” and “tone” in fiction, after all.)
I really like the idea of listening to audio books, but I have always found it difficult to concentrate on them. I don’t feel comfortable simply staring into space while I listen, which would be the audio equivalent of the total concentration I give most books when I read them in print. But even innocuous tasks to keep my hands busy while I listen (crochet, for instance) can occasionally take my mind off the words long enough to throw me off, and there are far too many distractions and interruptions when I’m walking or driving for me to stay focused. Though I sign audio books out of the library intermittently, then, I almost never manage to actually read (listen to) them all the way through.
I realize that there’s absolutely no reason why I need to adapt to audio books. I spend a lot of time with books as it is! And I’m busy and about to get busier, so I should not be looking for ways to while away the time — except that precisely because I’m busy, I like to have pleasant ways to relax, including ways that aren’t watching TV. So I’m trying something slightly different with audio books: instead of signing out new books I’ve been hoping to read, recently I’ve borrowed a couple that I already know well, on the theory that for them it won’t hurt if my attention wanders once in a while. And while I’m listening, I’m coloring, which is both soothing and suitably non-verbal, so I can concentrate quite well on the story.
The first book I tried this way was Mary Balogh’s Simply Perfect, 2/3 of which is my favorite Balogh novel (the other 1/3, which is scattered across the book, I find kind of annoying, so I skipped bits here and there as I listened). I quite liked the narrator, Rosalyn Landor, though I wish she had not felt obliged to put on “manly” voices for the male characters, especially the hero. Is this a typical thing, to do the characters in different voices? I hope not, but Susan Boyce, the reader of the second book I’ve listened to (Jennifer Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal), did different accents, so I fear it may be. I’d be fine with narrators just reading the dialogue in a natural way, rather than trying to dramatize it. I did still enjoy the stories, though, and listening to a chapter while doing a bit of coloring is definitely a nice way to unwind after a stressful day.
I probably won’t have a lot of time for listening and coloring once term begins, but I will keep experimenting. I’ve been thinking that listening to books is actually a skill of a different kind from reading them on the page, and maybe as I get accustomed to it, I will be able to work in new books and keep track of them better. I don’t think listening would be a good option for really dense or complexly structured books, certainly not for books I intend to write about in detail. But for lighter books that I read for diversion anyway, audio books might be a fine option, if I can learn to listen well enough.
I have already become a bit frustrated with our library’s selection, though. I thought, for instance, that I’d really enjoy listening to Little Women, which I haven’t read in many years, but I sampled the library’s only version and I don’t like the narrator at all. There are very few classics, and none of the ones I’ve heard particularly recommended (Juliet Stevenson reading Middlemarch, for example, or Timothy West reading Trollope). Simply Perfect is actually the only Balogh in the library’s collection, and The Cinderella Deal is the only Crusie….and so on. Still, I am not about to sign up for Audible unless this listening experiment really takes, so for now I’ll have to make do. I’ve got Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups on hold: I think that will be a good one for me.
Any tips from you more experienced audio book listeners — favorite narrators, good sources, ways to keep focused? Also, what do you especially like about listening to books — is it mostly about the convenience of being able to play them while you do other things, or do you find you have a different relationship with books you hear rather than read?