Saturday, March 15, 2008

Audio Books

I'm a big supporter of audio books. I listen to them in the car, in the mornings when I'm getting ready for work, when I'm exercising, and any time I have a menial chore (laundry, yard work). A good audio book makes unpleasant tasks virtually disappear and gives me an opportunity to "read" about a third more books than I would otherwise have time for.

In my opinion, listening to a book can be as enriching as reading a book when the audio book is carefully chosen. Certain books lend themselves to listening better than others, and good audio books tend to share the following common elements:
  • straightforward prose
  • a mostly linear structure
  • an absence of graphic elements (charts, drawings)
  • an absence of structural elements (unique formatting, insets)

I particularly like to listen to long, sprawling, uncomplicated books that would take many hours to read. Good recent choices include Heyday by Kurt Anderson, Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. I would not have read these three books if they had not been available as audio books. Other good candidates include anything by Richard Ford or Charles Dickens. Non-fiction audio books are often worthwhile (Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick) as long as there are no embedded graphical or structural elements (charts, insets). The audio format can make it easier to get through the more tedious parts that even the best non-fiction seems to include.

Books with complicated or poetic prose generally do not work well as audio books (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje). Truly engaging with such books requires slow, careful reading and re-reading. Similarly, books that skip around in time or are otherwise structurally complex are best read and not listened to so the reader can flip back and forth in the book and can fully understand the structure (The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger).

Audio books are quite expensive (~$50). To avoid paying this expense, I subscribe to My subscription allows me to download one audio book per month for about $15 a month. This is a significant savings. My local library also has an extensive audio book collection that I can access for free. Between these two resources, I have yet to pay full price for an audio book.

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