The Joy of Audiobooks
by Vaughn Treude
When I was a teenager, I had a blind friend who listened to books on vinyl records. At the time, it never occurred to me that these could also be good for sighted people. A book is much easier to carry than a record player! Later, when the medium switched to compact discs, listening on the go became possible, though still somewhat inconvenient. Modern technology has changed all that, making audiobooks available on our phones or MP3 players.
I still prefer to reading to listening. I believe it exercises your imagination, making each book a very personal experience. Ereaders, though lacking the feel of a physical book, are much the same. They make it easier to steal a few minutes of reading here and there, plus you can carry an entire library in a small device.
However, there are times when reading isn’t possible. Commuting in big city traffic has always made me feel like I was wasting a huge part of my life. Recently, I was traveling between the Phoenix, Ariz. suburbs of Glendale and Mesa, spending more than two hours per day. At first, I listened to the radio or my music player, but that got old after a while.
I’d considered audiobooks in the past, but the unwieldiness of having a folder of CDs discouraged me. Compressed electronic formats have eliminated that problem. A quick Web search reveals hundreds of recent titles available from Audible. (For alternatives see https://techboomers.com/audible-alternatives.) Audiobooks can be significantly more expensive than the visual versions, but at $14.95/month, Audible’s membership plan provides a modest discount on each purchase. They also give you one free title per month, which can cover the cost of the subscription. Prices vary greatly, so you may not want to pick the first book that catches your fancy. To get the most out of the offer, your free title should come from the higher-priced end of your wish list.
Listening to a book in audio form is an acquired taste. The narrators, who are essentially voice actors, can be very expressive – sometimes annoyingly so. At first, I hated it when they got carried away doing funny accents. One narrator gave the novel’s protagonist a scratchy voice reminiscent of Michael Keaton’s Batman. That wasn’t just irritating, it was also difficult to understand over the road noise. Yet I’ve gotten used to these minor issues. By the way, I’ve expanded my listening to venues beyond the highway. It’s a great way to make doing household chores more pleasant.
The best narrators can be fabulous. My favorite so far is Neal Gaiman, reading his own work. Very few authors read their work at all, much less do it well! The multitalented Gaiman does his characters’ accents and attitudes in an understated yet effective way that never takes you out of the story.
There are other listening options when an audio version is unavailable or too costly. A book reader application lets you listen to a standard ebook on your phone. I’ve gone through several books this way using the free version of FBReader. The voice is a bit robotic, though considerably better than Stephen Hawking. The app can mimic human inflection to a degree, though homographs such as dove/dove or read/read routinely confuse it.
The drawback of an app such as FBReader is that it can’t open books with Digital Rights Management (DRM) enabled. There are easy ways to disable DRM, which I won’t detail here. As an author, I don’t advocate sharing an unlocked book, of course. However, modifying a book for personal use on one’s favorite ereader is, in my view, the quintessential victimless crime.
For me, audiobooks have had a secondary benefit. As an author of three steampunk novels, I’ve always felt I haven’t read enough in that genre. Since going audio, I’ve burned through five steampunk novels in four months, and I’ve recently started on a sixth. This gives me plenty of material to review on my blog, steampunkdesperado.com. (Eventually, I’ll get a You-Tube channel and reprise my reviews in video form. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.)
Audiobooks have come a long way since books for the blind. They’re more convenient than ever and, though sometimes expensive, there are ways to minimize the cost. For me, they’ll never replace the fun of reading the old-fashioned way. Nevertheless, they’re a great way to pass the time while commuting and doing household chores. Best of all, busy people can finally get through all those books they’ve been wanting to read!
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota where the isolation of his home made books a welcome escape. He has been reading sci-fi as long as he can remember. In 2012, he published his first novel, Centrifugal Force. Since then he has concentrated on steampunk, writing Fidelio’s Automata and co-authoring the “Ione D.” series with Arlys Holloway. See Vaughn’s blog at steampunkdesperado.com.