If you’ve never met an audiobooks snob, then you should probably count yourself lucky. We’re kind of like wine snobs, except way nerdier: we’ll talk your ear off about things that no one should really care about, and spend way too much time bemoaning the fact that 90% of the thing that we love is absolute dreck.
When the Library first launched its OverDrive digital audiobook service, I went from CD audiobook tolerator to obsessed downloader pretty much overnight. The moment of truth for me was the day I was refinishing my floors — audiobook player in pocket, sound-cancelling headphones in ear — and got to the end of Book 2 in a series of three and realized I could download Book 3, immediately, without even leaving the house. This was a *very* good thing, because I was covered head to toe in sawdust and only had so many hours left on my Home Depot floor sander rental.
I’m fiercely committed to audiobooks. I might have REAL books and ebooks falling off my shelves waiting to be read, but if I’m getting to the end of my latest audiobook and don’t have a new one lined up, I go into panic mode. Part of the lure is their fierce multitasking power: audiobooks allow me to devote time to books that would otherwise just be lost. Take the morning commute, for example. While I see other people reading ebooks and print books on the bus, I can’t do it because I’m paranoid about missing my bus stop, and looking down at a printed page (while it makes the bus ride fly by) puts you in this alterna-universe where you forget to notice ordinary things like “where you are” and “why it’s a good idea to occasionally look up.”
Audiobooks, though, are completely MADE for the bus. You get to read the book AND pay attention to the world around you. And when you get off the bus, you don’t have to stop reading. Extra time that can be harvested for reading? GOLD. Strangely, I find that looking around at the scenery actually helps me pay attention to the narrator; when I’m just sitting and listening and not also doing some other task, my mind wanders and can’t focus on the story. That’s why audiobooks are also perfect for repetitive tasks like gardening and housework; the task keeps your mind on the book, and the book keeps your mind off the task. As an added bonus, you end up with a catalogue of associative memories tied to specific places/actions — the pit I just dug in my backyard brings up the bank scene in Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder, and rereading The Book Thief takes me back to walking the bike path between the Forks and Osborne Village — strange, vivid sense memories that are burned into my mind by the combined enjoyment of both place and story.
So I love audiobooks, but yet I will also refuse to listen to the vast majority of them. I’m RIDICULOUSLY picky. A book that’s good on paper is not necessarily a good audiobook, and vice versa. Award-winning? Doesn’t matter. What I crave is that elusive audiobook experience that improves on the book, brings the characters to life in ways my own brain couldn’t imagine, makes me dread the last disc because it means it will all be over soon.
Really, what it all comes down to is the narrator. There’s a limit to how long I’ll spend listening to a voice that I don’t like, even if I’m just a tiny bit bothered by it. Some audiobooks are 10 to 20 hours long, and that’s a pretty big commitment for someone who has a patronizing attitude, or who puts inflection on the wrong sentences, or leaves inflection out entirely, or reads EVERYTHING like it’s a fire alarm announcement, with Giant. Dramatic. Pauses between each sentence. If the narrator is reading the book “wrong,” I give it the old heave-ho, delete, next! treatment so fast it spins. It’s hard to explain how something can be “read wrong,” because everyone reads the way they read, right? Wrong. Good audiobook narrating is not about reading, it’s about acting. Audiobook readers just say the words on the page, whereas audiobook actors rehearse, think about the character, build their backstory in their minds and say the characters’ lines deliberately with all of the characters traits, flaws, habits in mind. I ONLY tolerate audiobooks narrated by people who get that difference. And I’ll rarely pick up an audiobook with a full cast of voices, because the likelihood that they’ll ALL be good narrators is slim. Boy, does that ever limit my choices.
So, like all snobs, I’m hamstrung by my own refusal to accept the mundane. And even though one of the top lessons I’ve learned in my years as a snob is to NEVER take advice about what to listen to (because how could anyone live up to impossible standards?), I’ll leave you with a list of my recent favorites:
- His Majesty’s Dragon and others in the Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik. Brilliant series, even MORE brilliant in narration. Simon Vance’s Temeraire voice is genius and has totally made it impossible for me to read this series on paper.
– Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy by L. A. Meyer. A hilariously campy and contrived historical fiction series which is narrated BRILLIANTLY by Katherine Kellgren.
– The Ruby In the Smoke and others in the Sally Lockhart Mystery Series by Philip Pullman. The whole series is great–something about those British accents…
– The Dead and the Gone, The Last Survivors Series, Book 2, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Book one was terrible on audio; book two shook me to the core.
And of course my all-time favorites, a triumvirate of audio bliss:
– The Book Thief (again, as mentioned above) by Markus Zusak. I’ve listened to it twice now and both times had me weeping like a baby in public.
– The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus trilogy) by Jonathan Stroud.
– The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo. Three times so far. And will probably listen again.