Listen Up: When to Audiobook


Ah, the dulcet tones of Kenneth Branagh.

It took me a while to trend-ify my old-school reading habits and work the occasional audiobook into my routine.

I admit it.

But once I did, I mentally roundhouse-kicked myself in the face for being so blind deaf to the obvious merits of this high-tech format. (OK, maybe not high-tech, exactly. But it does mean I have to use my phone for something other than GPS.)

If, like me, you need a little persuading, here are the most significant audiobook advantages that come to mind:

Reasons to Listen to Audiobooks

  • Convenient. Listen on the go—wherever you go when you go.
  • Entertaining. Voice acting is an art that, paired with standout storytelling, makes for an enhanced readerly experience.
  • Eco-friendly. I like paperbacks as much as the next geek, but audiobooks are the answer to a trillion trees’ prayers.
  • Shareable. You can include other people (family, friends, tolerant neighbors) in your listening.
  • Educational. Hopefully, you’ll learn how to pronounce new words and place names.
  • Authentic. The voice actor’s inflection can shed light on the hidden meaning buried under a word or passage.
  • Accessible. You can use any number of devices to listen, so there’s no need to lug around a mattress-sized novel.
  • Relaxing. For those of us who spend the entire day reading on a computer screen, audiobooks offer weary eyes a much-needed rest.

I’ll stop there. I’m going to assume I’ve won you over to the theory of audiobooks by now, and jump right into practice.

I stumbled into the habit of literary listening obliquely and skeptically during a trip across Southeast Asia. The older I get, the more I depend on Dramamine to ward off car sickness (and bus sickness, and train sickness, and plane sickness—you get the idea. My days of reading and riding are, I think, officially OVER). As a dedicated traveler and unstoppable reader, this predicament brought out the best in my problem-solving skills.

Just kidding. Audiobooks were the clear and immediate answer to all my life’s problems. I started my free Audible trial and got busy downloading.

Travel is, of course, the most apparent of all opportunities to squeeze in a good listen. But what about all those other times, you ask, when life’s NOT a beach?

My suggestion: Listen during those times, too.

When to Listen to Audiobooks: The Obvious

  • Commuting. (Duh.)
  • Waiting in line literally anywhere. (Literally. Anywhere.)
  • Running errands. (I suspect you spend quite a bit of time shopping for groceries, picking up pharmaceuticals, pumping gas, and/or chauffeuring young people in and around the wilds of suburbia.)
  • Cooking. (I hate cooking. Audiobooks make it bearable.)
  • Road trips long or short. (The shareable aspect mentioned above is especially relevant here.)
  • Eating breakfast. (I do this all the time.)
  • On your lunch break. (Ditto.)
  • Performing chores of any kind. (House-cleaning, yard work, and laundry lend themselves particularly well to an audio-reading session.)
  • Engaging in hobbies. (You crafty thing, you.)
  • Walking your dog. (Unlike the humans in your life, Fido won’t notice or care that you’re tuned in to a new story.)
  • Exercising. (Walking, jogging, weightlifting… extra points for all three.)

When to Listen to Audiobooks: The Less Obvious

  • Anytime you would normally be watching TV. (I love TV, but by turning it off half an hour earlier I fit that much more reading listening into my day.)
  • At work. (While undertaking tasks that require minimal brainpower, that is: organizing your inbox, making photocopies, brewing coffee, etc.)
  • Your bath or shower. (I have not yet tried this out of fear for my phone’s life—and because, Jesus, I need a break from reading once in a while. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea.)
  • During your morning and/or nighttime routine. (Washing face, brushing teeth, fixing hair, applying makeup, shaving, getting dressed, or any combination thereof.)
  • At the doctor’s office. (Put down those germ-ridden magazines. They’re the reason you’re at the doctor’s office.)
  • Watching your kids on the playground. (Multitasking at its finest.)
  • Right before bed. (Think of your book as a lullaby. For best results, select something dull.)

I’d love to hear recommendations on any moments I may have missed. The point is, though, that your brain spends more time idle (or close to it) than you probably guessed—and you could be filling that time with the world’s greatest literature, or most exciting new releases. I even took the time to serve up my very best Audiobook Advice to help you select the best titles for this format (wisdom dispenser that I am).

Please don’t let my generosity go to waste. You want to know when to listen in? Do it anytime. Do it now! If you don’t, you’ll just end up roundhouse-kicking yourself in the face.

Audiobook Advice from an Audiophile (io9)


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!