Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.

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