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?