Why can't I love audiobooks?

I’ve posted before about the fact that I’m a podcast addict. But I’ve never been able to work out why I can’t seem to get on with audiobooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of them. I have long wished for a device I could strap to my head so I could read while walking down the street. When you think about it, this is pretty much what audiobooks are all about. Although less ridiculous looking, obviously.

But for some reason they just don’t grab me. While I was walking my dog recently, I was listening to Radio 4’s Open Book podcast about the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a great discussion with people like Meg Rosoff, Kwame Kwei Armah and Shami Chakrabarti all talking about the impact the book had on them. Every now and then there were clips from the new audiobook, read by Sissi Spacek. Now I’ve loved our Sissi ever since she had a bucket of pig’s blood tipped over her head in the movie 'Carrie'. And To Kill a Mocking Bird is an amazing book. So why did my eyes instantly glaze over at these bits in the podcast? It was like tripping a switch in my mind and I couldn’t work out why it was happening.

And then it hit me. The reason I don’t like audiobooks is because the narrators read so slooooowly. I read very fast - too fast, sometimes forgetting plots as soon as I put them down. I find it very hard to slow things down and savour what I’m reading and of course, this is exactly how audiobooks should be narrated, giving listeners time to properly digest the story.

I'm obviously not alone in my lack of enthusiasm. Observer books editor Robert McCrum has said, 'I have fairly mixed feelings about audiobooks. At their best, unabridged and read by an author who knows about reading aloud (John le Carré springs to mind) they can be distillations of pure magic; a lovely window on the author's intentions. Read badly, or over-read by an out-of-work actor and horribly abridged, they can do a book a great disservice. Obviously, with a tape or a CD, the reader also loses some autonomy: it's much more difficult to skip.'

I injured my eye a few years ago and discovered that when one eye is in agony, you have to keep both of them closed. This meant lying in a darkened room and I had never needed to get on with audiobooks so much as I did for those few days. But they still didn't satisfy, even then.

Despite all this, I worry there is a whole other world of books out there that I’m missing out on.

So my plea is: how do I persuade my brain to slow down when I’m listening to someone else reading? And also, what are your top three favourite audiobooks? I’d love some recommendations. I’m determined to try and curb my impatience and make use of an art form that really deserves more respect.


Anonymous said...

I will confess, I've never really got on with audiobooks of novels and stories. I prefer radio plays and taped play readings, perhaps because they were designed to be read aloud and most actors are already familiar with readings.

Have you tried the original radio version of "hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy"?

Caroline Green said...

I did love those books as a teenager, Anon...I'm not a fan of radio plays, but do love The Archers, so all is not lost!

Rosy T said...

I love them! I'm currently listening to Wolf Hall on my daily commute - all 22 CDs of it - because I just know it would otherwise taken me about a year to read it! I only like them unabridged, though - and I don't take to every narrator, which means that I have abandoned some, and had to buy the book and read it. I also like listening to books I have read and love, narrated to me soothingly like a bedtime story. Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books was a joy; we shared it on family holiday car journeys and loved it as much as the kids did.

I heard an interesting talk recently, at a library literary event, by an actor who records unabridged audio books. It was fascinating, the huge amount of preparation, research and immersion in the book which goes into reading it. he was also saying that the oral storytelling tradition predates the writing down of stories by centuries - which of course is true. And most writers like to read their work aloud to make sure that it falls easily upon the ear as well as on the eye. So maybe receiving one's reading in spoken form is not so very strange....

Caroline Green said...

That's a good tip about the Harry Potters...do they still cost £4m each though, as they did at height of popularity?

I do love Miranda Richardson reading Horrid Henry. She does all the voices so wvery ell.

yes, I think it's interesting that oral storytelling is where it all began.

Ellie Garratt said...

The reason you gave for not enjoying audiobooks really resonated with me. I've tried audiobooks, even optng for a Stephen King story read by the master himself, but I found my mind would wonder. I am a fast reader, but never figured that might be the reason I didn't enjoy audiobooks!

Caroline Green said...

Ellie, sounds like the same problem! It just struck me like a bolt of lightning that this was the reason.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I find I'm happy listening to a recording of a book if I'm busy doing something else, like cleaning. Somehow it works then. But like you, I prefer the autonomy of being able to stop and muse mid-sentence, or go back a couple of pages, or whisk on.
Interesting post.

Anonymous said...

I used to like audio books when driving. Being 'locked' into my journey I don't think I minded the speed too much as long as the reader was 'right' for the book. One thing I did find disconcerting was that without the book in my hand (and presumably oblivious to tape counters etc)I lost any idea of how much of the book was still to come, which I now realises is a big 'clue' to the reader of how the story will end.
Thinking it's time I got back into audio, one way or another.

Rosy T said...

I've been thinking about it some more and I reckon I am just very keen on the oral tradition.

Kids' books being read aloud is absolutely natural, for a start: they are destined to be read out loud my Mum or Dad at bedtime as much as read by the child. But some adult fiction is also very much in the storytelling tradition. Take Tolkien: my mother read the whole of The Lord of the Rings to us (to my dad as well as my brother and me) when we were in our early teens, a couple of nights a week over several winters. I've never gone back to read it for myself because I think it might spoil the magic it left with me.

My partner and I read aloud to each other in the evenings, taking turns with chapters, even before we had kids to read to - a habit begun on holiday once when we were up a mountain with no TV and no radio reception. It's a wonderful way to share a book. We always read a ghost story aloud on Christmas Eve instead of watching telly - and now the kids listen, too. It's especially a thing for holidays, when there is more time, and I still associate various holiday destinations with the books we shared there. 'Birdsong' in Provence; an Italian mountain cottage with the Empress of Blandings.

And audio books are just a busy-working-week version of the same thing.

Sorry to go on... just felt suddenly enthused!

Caroline Green said...

That's so lovely that you all read together, Rosy. I still read to my eleven year old son and it definitely brings us close.

Sheila Cornelius said...

I think audio books are great for long car journeys, too. I like radio comedy series like Hancock or the Goon show picked up in charity shops or the library, although crime stories are good - John Mortimer and Simon Raven or Ian Rankin. I have to be careful at the library because my car takes tapes but not CDs. We only found this out too late when we set off with PG Wodehouse's 'Cocktail Time', about an aristo who writes a scandalous book but wants to remain anonymous. I started to listen to the half dozen disks in bed,through headphones, but progress is slow. I usually fall asleep half way through and have to start again or try to remember where I got up to the next night. I agree there's something infinitely soothing about being read to.

Paul said...

I can do audio books when I'm driving long distances or taking long walks, but I can't sit still and listen to them.

The Stephen Fry Harry Potter books are among the best I've listened to, partly because he can produce so many voices but also because there is a hint of mischief in his natural voice. The audio version of Anansi Boys was great for the same reason (also, a very good story).

Jennifer Shirk said...

I'm the same way! Audio books are too slow for me too.

DT said...

Stephen King's On Writing is very easy to listen to and engaging.

Lance Eaton said...

Hi all,

I have (more than) a few thoughts on the subject but will refrain from boring you all to death on something I'm pretty deep into ;)

1. Like reading, one has to find where they are most comfortable with listening; don't assume that it's where it's most convenient to you. Also, there's a "listening" curve; just like we didn't all become natural readers; it took time and effort for us to establish our rhythm with reading.

2. Some audio machines (such as the ipod) does have a "fast" mode which quickens the reading a bit more than normal speed.

3. One key thing to look for is a narrator that you like (sample them on audible or elsewhere) and follow that narrator. While authors/writing is important here; narrator can easily (for better or worse) trump it.

4. Stephen King is not a good narrator...not for his books or anyone elses...he's been smart in that the vast majority of his books, he has chosen (or at least been invovled in the decision process more than most authors) his narrators. He occasionally lets is ego get the best of him and it never fairs well.

Kath McGurl said...

I don't get on with audiobooks either. For me, novels are a visual thing. They have to go in through the eyes, not the ears. I guess I'm a good reader but a poor listener.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Me neither, Caroline. I have no concentration and find myself making shopping lists. When I read I am the one in control and can always put the book down or turn the page.

Fionnuala said...

Er me too...I've never got on with them either but like you - I'd like to try harder. Maybe on a car journey or something.

Traxy said...

I agree. I read a lot quicker than the person reading an audiobook too! As I've been a bit bored driving on the way to and from work - basically because if I'm driving, I can't read or write, but only DRIVE and listen to music or radio, and that's a bit "but if I was on a bus, I could get stuff done!" - and wanted to get through the remaining three Brontë books for a reading challenge, I thought "hey, audiobooks!" and downloaded them from LibriVox.org (a community project where ordinary people record various chapters of public domain books) and listened in the car.

Brilliant! I slowly worked my way through "Villette", like I'm now working my way through "Shirley", and it would have been a lot slower if I could only read during my lunch break. Now, I have at least an hour every day commuting where I can read with my ears.

With regards to LibriVox, it's a great idea, and there are some great narrators out there in the general public. There are, of course, also those that are the opposite. One of the recent chapters I listened to nearly had my eyes glaze over because the reader. Spoke like this. One or two. Words at a time. It was. Very annoying. To listen to. Very quickly.

I embarked on trying to record "Jane Eyre" last year, and did the first chapter and asked for feedback. The most common feedback I got was "SLOW DOWN! You talk too fast!" When I tried again, more recently, I tried to slow down as much as I could manage, and I think it's a lot better.

But yeah, I prefer reading with my eyes rather than my ears. Although, if I got hold of one of the Georgette Heyer audiobooks read by Richard Armitage ... weeeell ... I'm sure I'd be of a much more favourable opinion. Ahh, that mighty fine actor has a mighty fine voice, I tell ya! :)

Sheila Cornelius said...

Reading is reading, but I love plays, too. 'Cocktail Time' is read by an RSC actor called Jonathan Cecil. He has the right kind of upper-crust accent but he can change his voice so much, doing men and women, that it's like listening to a very good radio play. Another tape we listen to in the car is the diary of WF Deedes, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and a big pal of Mrs Thatchers, as much for the amazing voice as for the political shenanigans.