Audiobooks, Reading and How to Talk About Books

Not the sort of books you can listen to
Not the sort of books you can listen to

If there’s one thing most readers love as much as reading, it’s talking about the books we read. Whether it’s presenting theories on Jon Snow’s parentage or discussing which is our favourite Pratchett book, we all do it. But that’s become a little tricky linguistically.

Reading With Your Ears

For over a year now, I’ve dabbled in the Sword and Laser reading group on Goodreads. It’s a great place to find out about interesting books and to discuss them with other readers. It’s made me aware of a trend I’d never noticed before – referring to listening to audiobooks as ‘reading’.

When people want to discuss the experience of taking in a particular book, whether by reading, listening or a combination of the two, it’s become common to use ‘reading’ to refer to the experience in general. We don’t have another word that covers it, and that’s become the default. But it can occasionally be confusing, as it turns out that someone has been ‘reading’ a book without ever looking at a single line on a page or screen.

Does it Matter?

This came up in a discussion with fellow speculative fiction author Rita de Heer about one of my previous posts. As Rita pointed out, the way we take in stories changes the experience. An audiobook gives you around 150-160 words per minute, while an average silent reader will take in and understand 250-300 words. Proof reading might take you to 200 wpm, depending on the quality of the work, but we go a lot faster when reading novels.

Then there’s the fact that an audiobook adds another person to your experience of the story. The quality of narration can add to or detract from the experience. I love listening to James Marsters reading the Dresden Files books (review of one coming up next week), but there’s no denying that I’d imagine Harry Dresden differently without that voice.

So Is It Reading?

We need a word to refer to taking in stories whatever the format, as it’s still the same story and we want to discuss it with ease. Until we come up with something else, ‘reading’ is going to have to do. But if we want to appreciate the subtleties of how reading works and what it means, we need to remember that there’s a difference between reading and, well, reading.

Do you refer to audiobooks as ‘reading’? Do you have another word to cover all ways of experiencing stories? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.

Bedtime stories

I wrote recently about audiobooks and how they fit into the tradition of oral storytelling. And as so often happens, I realised after that post that I’d had a narrow viewpoint. As a result, I’d missed one of the places where the oral tradition is most vibrantly and excitingly alive.

I refer of course to bedtime stories.

picture by ChrysArt via Flickr creative commons
picture by ChrysArt via Flickr creative commons

Up the stairs to bed

Bedtime stories are a part of almost every childhood. A parent sat by the side of the bed, reading to their child, discussing what the book’s about. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, a chance for the child to develop a love of books. Maybe they do voices. Maybe the child joins in on the bits they know. It’s great fun.

I had first hand experience of this on Wednesday, when I told bedtime stories to my nieces, Ever-ready and the Princess. We had a picture book about sticking plasters, and a chapter from Philip Reeve‘s Larklight. Like in days of old, we gathered together for the story telling, sharing every spell-binding moment. It made me feel close to my nieces, gave us something to talk about the next morning (oh those villainous moobs!), and was the most fun I had all week.

Grown-ups too

Of course, bedtime stories aren’t only for children. Mrs K and I have, from time to time, read books to each other as we settle down for the night. Whether it’s sharing a particularly good passage from a novel, an interesting snippet from a factual book, or working our way through a story together a chapter at a time, it’s a relaxing way to end the day. I don’t know how many couples do this, but I do know that we’re not the only ones.

From the campfire to the bedroom

So I guess not much has changed. We’ve just moved our story-telling to a more comfortable location, and I’m happy with that.

Do you still enjoy a good bedtime story? What were your favourite bedtime stories as a child? Which ones are you reading with your kids now? Leave a comment below, gather round the digital campfire and share a tale.

Audiobooks and the oral story telling tradition

When I was about ten, a story teller came to our school. He was, in my memory at least, everything you’d expect – big hair, baggy shirt, new age intensity. He had a bowl that rang out with a clear, captivating note when he ran a stick around it. I was entranced.

He came to mind today as I thought some more about audiobooks and stories as something we listen to. At first, audiobooks might seem like the modern continuation of the oral story telling tradition, with a lone performer drawing us into a story that we listen to, but in a lot of ways I don’t think they are.

One reason is that the old story telling tradition was about keeping the stories alive. The stories were handed down from one teller to the next, and those brains became the repositories in which the stories were preserved for future generations. These days we have books for that, and the internet. Audiobooks are just one more way to preserve the story, and not one most people use.

Then there’s the shared experience. A comment from Sheila yesterday highlighted the fact that a lot of audiobook listening is done on your own. But old-school story telling was a shared moment around campfire or hearth, a whole audience waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. These days, we’re more likely to get that shared experience, that anticipatory tension, from watching the latest episode of a hotly anticipated TV show, then turning to friends, family or the internet to share our excitement. Some friends and I will be glued to my TV at eight tonight for the start of Agents of SHIELD, huddled round the neon campfire.

And then there’s the element of live performance, of the story teller getting caught up in the emotions with their audience, of a performance that’s all the better for its uniqueness, for its small imperfections and sense of connection. Audiobooks, being a recorded form, don’t have that. It lives on for a few in live story telling, but most of us are more likely to get it from a music gig or perhaps going to the theatre.

These changes aren’t a bad thing. They mean that we still get what we used to get from live story telling, in a whole host of different ways. And live story telling isn’t entirely dead – for one of my friends, it’s a favourite hobby. That campfire experience lives on, fractured and varied, but perhaps even stronger for it.

As always, I’m interested to see your comments. Have I missed some key feature of story telling? Have you been to a particularly cool or interesting story telling performance? Let the world know below.

Audiobooks – reading with the ears

Last week was the first time in ages that I’ve listened to a whole audiobook. My iphone is usually swamped with podcasts, and I like a wide variety of music. But I had lots of driving to do – Cornwall to Stockport is a loooooooong way – so some substantial listening seemed a good idea.

By happy coincidence, my local library had an audio version of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, which was already on my to-read list. I also picked up Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, because if you’re going to listen to a random book it might as well be a classic.

From the start, this made for a different driving experience. My usual car habit is to listen to rock that was new when I was young – when your favourite bands have broken up, reformed and done a few reunion tours, you know you’re not ‘down with the kids’, but Superunknown is still an awesome album. But it’s hard to headbang to an audiobook, and they took more attention. Not so much that I was a hazard on the road, but to the point where driving soon achieved a trance-like quality, reflexes doing a lot of the work, the part of my brain that listens to the satnav barely even a conscious thought.

Listening rather than reading affected the pace at which I consumed the books. I think that, for the literary purist, this is an advantage of audio. Readers can’t skim over the bits that are slow or bore them. Every word is a beat in the ‘reading’ experience. It’s a slower experience, partly because of this but also because reading out loud takes longer than reading in your head.

One side effect I’d not considered before is the little pleasures you lose. You don’t get the feel of how many pages you have left, and counting down CDs and tracks isn’t quite the same. You don’t get the brief, anticipatory pause of turning the page.

In exchange you get to listen to a voice actor, a professional performer of words, and that’s interesting in itself. I imagine that good voice actors are often forgotten by their listeners, as their voices carry the texture of the story, heightening the author’s work rather than drawing attention to themselves. Certainly I had a lot of that while listening to Rivers of London, but when I remembered to pay attention I enjoyed the reader’s voice, his firm but friendly tone, the use of pauses and emphasis.

Rivers of London worked well as an audiobook. The narrator – I forgot to make a note of his name – fitted well with the tone of the book and its point of view character. A bit of a modern London accent, nothing over-done or drifting into comedy cockney. I was engaged and enlivened both by his voice and the story, and it kept me going for miles. This may explain why I enjoyed this book more than many of my friends – SiC’s comment yesterday seems pretty representative.

The City and the Stars was another matter entirely. It’s written in an old-fashioned, expository style. The voice was older and less lively. The whole tone of the experience was soporific. Struggling to stay alert, I gave up after half an hour and went back to growling along with Soundgarden.

It’s not that this was a bad book. I haven’t got far enough to judge that yet. But the experience of listening rather reading accentuated its flat emotional tone, and it turns out that, when trying to stay alert, that’s a bad thing.

I’m pretty much converted back to audiobooks. They’re a good way to consume books while doing other things. I’ll probably even finish The City and the Stars, as a bit of restful entertainment while I do chores in the evening. But it’s interesting to notice how the format changes the reading experience. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just… different.

What do the rest of you think? Do you listen to a lot of audiobooks? Have you found that some work and some don’t? Which ones do you particularly recommend?