Audiobook Advice from an Audiophile (io9)

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This was an inspiring find during a recent break in my daily hacking and trolling eating and Netflixing routine: io9’s list of 10 audiobooks “worth getting for the voice acting alone.”

At some point in the last two years, I went from an occasional audiobook listener to a devout fanatic, finishing a range of titles from Bossypants to Robinson Crusoe to Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line and then lecturing everyone around me on the benefits of this (convenient! entertaining! eco-friendly!) format. I’m already excited to pick up Sissy Spacek’s reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Stephen Fry’s take on Harry Potter, as soon as a few Audible credits free up.

As much as I love the concept, though, I’ve learned the hard way that some books lend themselves better than others to an audio format. If you’re in the market for a great new listen, I’d recommend sticking first of all to books narrated in first person. Memoirs and autobiographies go down particularly well, along with travelogues and diaries. Standard novels in first person are fine, too, in many cases.

The reason? It’s pretty simple, really: Third-person narratives can be confusing, especially in dialogue, and especially if the voice actor doesn’t clearly and consistently differentiate individual characters’ voices. Multiple perspectives might well be a disaster of biblical Tuesday-esque proportions (though I’ve never tried it myself).

The second consideration when it comes to audiobooks is plot. This is NOT the format for complex dramas, convoluted mysteries, non-linear structures, or any other kind of stories-as-puzzles. If you suspect that the book atop your TBR will leave you wishing you could refer back to previous sections, you’re better off with the paper version. Remember that, with audiobooks, you’re depending entirely on your own (frayed, threadbare) memory to gather up all the plot essentials—and some studies show that our minds are prone to wandering when we “read” passively vs. actively.

In terms of style, quick and easy (usually modern) reads are your safest bet. Short chapters are a blessing, as are short sentences. If you prefer non-fiction or the classics, don’t worry—it CAN be done. You just need to choose your titles carefully. The Russians are famous for casts of characters so large they require their own appendix. Stream-of-consciousness ramblings and long-winded descriptive passages are difficult enough to get through on paper. So don’t be a masochist, OK? Limit your plate to more straightforward, easy-to-swallow fare.

Obviously, the voice actor will play a major role in your enjoyment of any audiobook. It’s always a pleasure to listen to the author read their own work (the way the story was “meant” to be told, we can assume), especially when it comes to celebrity memoirs and/or humor. Also: Character accents are a gift and a half to the literary listener—and they help a lot with the recurring problem of distinguishing among diverse voices.

My last piece of advice: If you have multiple options of voice actors for your next audiobook purchase (as is often the case with classics), it’s worth listening to any available samples. I have, on occasion, found low-pitched voices difficult to hear distinctly, especially when competing with other ambient noises (e.g., traffic, the dishwasher, the neighbor’s cat, particularly crunchy scones).

For those of you who aren’t quite sure when/where you can work audiobooks into your daily habits, I am currently drafting a list of times/places to squeeze them in—if only for a few minutes. Those minutes add up quicker than you’d think. And, if you choose carefully, audiobook narration can make your reading experience even better than what you get on paper. So happy listening, from me to you!