Friday, December 19, 2014

The Good and the Bad of Audiobooks

I love audiobooks. I've been a fan since the time when I had to feed CD after CD into my car stereo on the 6-hour trips between home and college (thankfully there are now such things as Aux plugins and MP3 CDs). I used to take advantage of them only when I was traveling, but now I always have one loaded on my iPhone for my morning jogs or to keep my mind occupied while folding laundry or unloading the dishwasher.

According to my records, I've read a total of 80 books as audiobooks, so by now I have some strong opinions on what makes a good or bad audiobook. In other words, what is there in common among the books I regret reading on audio and among those I strongly recommend others read on audio?

Unfortunately, some of these aspects are hard to determine until you've invested some time in listening to the book, but some you can determine by listening to samples before borrowing or buying, by reading the book summary, or by checking the narrator(s) listed.

The Good: Great reasons to pick up an audiobook

1. Multiple narrators
If a book has different characters narrate different chapters in first person, I love when different people do the voices. It helps a lot with getting into the mindset of that particular character and building mental continuity between their sections. Sometimes in a hard copy book like this I find myself getting confused because I've forgotten which character is narrating, which doesn't happen when there are literally different people talking. I also like multiple narrators when the different characters are different genders or from different countries/regions.

The only book in this category I didn't particularly like on audio was Eleanor & Park; I'm not sure if it's because it sometimes rapidly flipped back and forth between the narrators or because much of the book was dialogue between the two characters and they had each actor imitate the other's voice rather than just inserting them into the audio.

2. Nonfiction
It's frustrating when the narrator of a novel sounds good from a sample but it turns out they don't provide any distinction between character voices, particularly if the book doesn't use many speech tags to clarify. You don't typically have to worry about this in nonfiction, though. I've gotten through some great nonfiction reads by having them read to me, including the lengthy The Emperor of All Maladies. A good narrator can make an otherwise dry or complex explanation come alive with the proper emphasis and pausing, just like a good teacher.

3. Good accents
If a character has an accent, that's not always conveyed in writing, but can be brought out through narration. Assuming the narrator is good at accents or has a native accent, I love getting that added aspect from the audiobook. This added to The Bonesetter's Daughter, which had two narrators, one of whom voiced a Chinese character who spoke with an accent, in contrast to her American-accented daughter. This can even work in nonfiction books; I've listened to some great books where the narrator adopts a light (not obnoxious) Scottish, Australian, or Indian accent when quoting a scholar from that country.

The Mixed: Depends heavily on the particular book

1. Authors as narrators
If an author is a good narrator, it can be enjoyable to hear the book read exactly as they envisioned it when they were writing it. If they're an actor or comedian, they're usually great. But I'm generally cautious when I see "read by the author"; just because someone can write, doesn't mean they can narrate well. I've found that amateurish narrators tend toward overemphasis and awkward phrasing, which can be wearing to listen to over many hours.

2. Bonus material
Some audiobooks have a bonus interview with the author at the end, which can be great if the interviewer is good and the author is as articulate off the cuff as they are in writing, but that's not always the case. Sometimes it's like at the end of A Walk to Remember, when they put in this bonus music video of Mandy Moore dancing around scantily clad, which completely ruined the film's sweet ending after the illusion during the entire movie that she was a terminally ill conservative Christian. Bonus material can be cool or it can end the whole audiobook experience on a sour note. Same goes for downloadable bonus material, which can be great (like including visual elements of the book you would otherwise miss — see below) or terrible (like providing a "book jacket" summary that includes spoilers).

The Bad: Better to read it in hard copy if you can

1. Jumps in time
Maybe this is just me, but I have a hard enough time keeping things straight when a hard copy book jumps around in time and I have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to remember which year we're in. If the date is read once at the beginning of a chapter and I just have to remember it while listening to that chapter, forget it — I'm lost. And if there are cool parts where certain scenes are relived from multiple perspectives? There's no easy way in an audiobook to flip back to the previous time that scene was shared to compare. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, but I wish I hadn't listened to it as an audiobook (despite liking the two different narrators) — I had to rewind to the beginning of chapters many times to keep it all straight.

2. Too many characters
Another reason I flip backwards in books: when a character pops up after a long lag and I can't remember who they are. This can be helped somewhat if they have a distinct voice on the audiobook, but more often than not I get muddled when I can't go back and look up a character (love the search on Kindle for this). Even a good narrator will have a hard time making 20 different characters sound sharply distinct from one another, particularly ones of the same gender and accent.

3. Books with visual elements
I made the mistake of listening to An Abundance of Katherines (in which mathematical graphs feature a large role) and The Lost Symbol (which should have been obvious), rather than reading them in hard copy. Any book that includes drawings, charts, or other visual elements directly referenced by the text is less than ideal as an audiobook.

Do you listen to audiobooks? What would you add to these lists?

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  1. I find that, because I listen to audiobooks when I do other things, that I don't do as close a reading of the text as I do when I read physical books. But that's me as a reader. My students love audiobooks because they feel like they're not doing as much of the work of reading as they would without the audio support.

  2. That's interesting; I've found that I often have the opposite experience as you, particularly with classics, nonfiction, or other books that are "boring" or have boring passages. When I'm reading in hard copy, I sometimes find myself skimming certain passages or my mind drifting and not attending to what I'm reading. But when I'm listening on audiobook, I have every single word read to me so I can't miss stuff. I also can't cheat and look ahead when there's a suspenseful part; I have to experience it as the author wrote it. That's not to say I also listen to every word (I do still zone out at times and have to rewind, and I definitely didn't pay close attention while listening to all the "history of whaling" chapters in Moby Dick), but it helps stave off some of my bad habits related to hard copy reading.