I’ve been thinking, lately, about “audiobooks,” recorded dramatized readings of poetry or prose. I want to like audiobooks—but after trying several, I’ve “bounced off” of (i.e. been unable to keep going with) all but a small handful. Here’s some of my thoughts as to why.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about audiobooks recently is my encounter with Aubrey Hansen‘s debut novella Red Rain. I tried the free audio version, but couldn’t get through even a couple of minutes of it—then read the “preview” of the ebook and was solidly hooked. My experience with that audiobook matches most I’ve tried, but there are at most a dozen that I’ve liked quite well or maybe even loved.

I think I haven’t been able to stand most of the audiobooks I’ve tried for a few reasons. Most of them are probably essentially unique to me—I’m attempting to pin down “a certain je ne sais quoi“—but you may find that some resonate with you, or that other readers have similar reactions.

The first thing is the pacing of the book. The few audiobooks I have enjoyed, and would choose to re-“read” if I had the time, are books I know well, and have little of a certain kind of dramatic tension that is quite common in fiction. When I’m reading—rather than listening to or watching—a story, I read quite fast. I may slow down (and go back) if there’s a bit I’d like to savor, but far more often even in my favorite books are points where I speed up to either find out what happens next (the mark of a good “yarn”) or to skim rather than read through tense scenes. (I note that not all “tension” affects me the same way; most examples of the kind that I “can’t watch” are romantic, as in Pride and Prejudice and A Civil Campaign, but the latter author’s earlier science fiction mystery novel Memory begins with a sequence that similarly hangs on the character’s deliberate mistakes.) I can tolerate, and even enjoy, sitting through an exciting passage at the reader’s fixed speed, but I can’t bear to listen to “tense” scenes of the sort I describe. At least with a movie the story is largely told visually, so like the Pevensie girls in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I can turn away rather than watch, and such scenes are generally shorter than their equivalent in a book read aloud; in audio alone there is no escape, and they become unbearable.

The second factor is the reader’s voice. This, more than anything else, is a je ne sais quoi. The reader has to match the book somehow (it may be relevant that all the books I can remember liking as audiobooks have been told in the third person), but beyond that I can’t begin to put into words why I love one audiobook’s voicing but not another’s—except that I suspect that a professional, other things being equal, will be more likely to avoid the habits, tones, or whatever that make most audiobooks so unpleasant. (By the way, for some reason I’ve had a little less trouble “getting through” podcasts with voices I’d find quite trying as audiobook narrators … something about the differences between those two forms might be worth investigating.)

Beyond the book’s pacing, there are simply some books that are suitable for listening to (other than listening to a friend or family member read aloud “live,” which changes the situation somewhat), and some that are not. In my opinion authors ought to strive to be (and poetry ought to always be) in the former category, but some authors are far too long-winded in their storytelling or intricate in their plotting to translate into audio well, just as some books wouldn’t work well as movies. I suspect “juvenile novels”—what’s now called “young adult fiction”—may be more likely to work well as audiobooks, and certain eras’ stories (in a time when paper was rationed) may translate better than our own, but all that is “other things being equal,” and they never are.

And perhaps one of the strongest factors is simply my impatience. In each case of an audiobook I’ve enjoyed well enough to finish it, it’s been a book I had already read in paper several times. And, as I noted above, I read quite fast even when I’m trying to savor the writing; the only time I read slowly is when I’m studying it (and even then I’m more likely to just reread it repeatedly), or when I’m persistently distracted. No voice can read as quickly as my own “internal monologue,” let alone my unfettered mind when the words translate directly thence through my eyes from the page without even manifesting as sound in the ear of my mind. I can linger over a book I know well, so I can thoroughly enjoy it being read (that statement being qualified by the items I described above); perhaps I’m simply not patient enough yet to manage an utterly new audiobook.

Those are some of my thoughts; what do you think?


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