Audio Books, Yea or Nay?

I love to read. I read quite quickly, too, so I will find myself skimming pages at times which is a shame when it’s a lovely well-written book. I will often make myself go back and reread something to get more detail and enjoy the flow of the words but if I make myself read slowly in the first place, I only end up reading the same paragraph over and over.

Some people really enjoy listening to audio books which have been around quite some time. They’re really an extension of the days when plays and books were read on the radio but audio or “spoken word” or “talking” books have been around since the 1930s. Initially, it was mainly plays and poetry and often only available in schools or in libraries. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and he saw it as a way to bring books to the blind. In fact, the first thing Edison did with his new phonograph was record himself reading “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. But the cylinders and early disks weren’t very practical because they couldn’t hold a lot of recorded time. By the 1930s, record disks could hold more and recorded speaking books started to be produced.

A company in the 1950s, Caedmon Records, decided to start selling recorded books on records to the general public. By now, LP (Long Play) records were on the market making it more feasible even though the first works were still shorter works of fiction, short stories, plays and poetry. Still, it was a start. Over the decades, technology improved and little by little recorded books turned to cassette tapes and then CDs when it really took off in the 1980s like a shot. Big companies like Time Warner and Literary Guild were offering audiobooks as choices in Book of the Month Club. There was no going back, now.

Now, of course, there are downloadable digital audio books and website streaming and they are becoming even more popular. People listen to books as they drive, work at home or relax on the beach or wherever they can find a comfortable spot. Just like eBooks, you can get most of the classics for free or buy audiobooks from various on or offline sellers. You can borrow audio books from the library via an app on your phone or computer or stream them from the library website.

Me? I’ve never really got into audio books but I’m going to try a couple over the next few months. I know from past experience trying to listen to the occasional radio play that my attention wanders, I get distracted, and I miss chunks of the storyline. That’s mainly why I haven’t taken the plunge. I’d probably have the best luck with it if I sat with my adult colouring book and listened. There would be less distraction. For me, when driving, the radio is background noise and I think an audio book would be as well. I wouldn’t get anything out of it even if I was only the passenger.

I did actually try a few chapters a month or so ago with Quantum Nights by Robert J Sawyer, but the male reader of the story would change his voice to sound feminine for the female characters and the way he did it grated on my nerves. I then tried streaming an abridged (condensed) version of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and when that narrator did something similar, it was ok. Many people that love audio books do say that the quality of the reader is very important to your enjoyment of the book.  A few days ago, I went to a couple of sites that have free audio books to download. These are mainly classic books that are in the public domain. I like to try to read a classic or two every year anyway so why not try one in this format?

Terminology to know: Abridged vs Unabridged. Unabridged is the whole book recorded where Abridged is a condensed version without all the detail. The Underground Railroad that I listened to off the BBC Radio website was most definitely abridged and I would have preferred the full meal deal, I think.

If you are interested in trying an audiobook, check out your local library’s digital catalog. You can borrow one for free. If you want to download one, this website has a few options for the best sites to try.  You might also have a look at Open Culture, Librivox and Playster. You can also get free audio books through Amazon and iTunes (iBooks) and Google books.

You can also pay for audio book services like Audible, which seems to be one of the most popular. You pay a monthly fee and get one book for free each month and then can buy loads more at good discounts and listen offline. Audiobooks is a similar service.  Spotify does online streaming of music and books. You can join there for free but there are restrictions and you may have ads in the stream. I think all three do have free books as well, classics and perhaps some self published works.

For me, since I can’t see audiobooks being a major part of my reading world, I will experiment with free books, either by download or through the library using the Overdrive app on my phone and go from there. It’s all about trying new things. At least then I can’t say I’ve never tried it.




Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

3 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Reader: Clarke Peters
Abridger: Sara Davies
Producer: Mair Bosworth

This wasn’t a book I expected to read right now, though I thought I might at some point. Then I saw via Twitter that BBC Radio 4 was streaming this book for free online for the next few weeks. It’s produced for their Book at Bedtime series. Perfect. Why not? I’ve never listened to an audio book before. This one appears to be abridged which means it’s not word for word what’s in the actual book but conveys the story. I think this still counts as a book read/heard, though!

This is the story of a slave, Cora, who is terribly used and abused on the plantation where she lives. A new slave, Caesar, decides to run away on the Underground Railroad. In this story, it’s an actual railroad and train, not a network of safe houses and hidey holes like it was in reality. There are sympathetic abolitionists at each stop/terminus who help hide the slaves/passengers until they can catch another train. Cora and Caesar run and in the process, during a confrontation, Cora accidentally kills a young white man. Even more reason to run, now, since she’s branded as a murderer.

The story follows Cora through several stops including both North and South Carolina and Indiana. Each stop finds Cora with the slavecatcher on her heels and facing the horrors of racism and slavery. There’s an element of fantasy to the book as well, or at least it felt like it. Some of the things like early surgery to perform tubaligations to enforce birth control seem a bit unread given the historic period, early 1800s, that the book is covering. But you go with it. There are lynchings and shootings. Cora is in danger much of the time. Caesar disappears, presumably captured or killed. Cora manages escapes that almost seem worthy of a Hollywood movie heroine and perhaps we will see that at some point.

This book has been really promoted and hyped. It’s won some awards and has had the backing of both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. Heady recommendations, indeed. Is it worth the hype? Maybe. The story itself is pretty good. I would imagine the book details a lot more of the horrific things that happened so it would be difficult to read at times. I admit, as a white person, it wouldn’t resonate as deeply with me.  I would probably be more engaged in a book I could read rather than listen to and I may pick this up in paper or ebook format at some point.

The abridged audio version didn’t really flesh out many of the secondary characters and each incident seemed very isolated, and viewed a bit from a distance even if Cora was directly involved. It almost feels at times like it’s “this happened, then this happened, etc” You don’t really feel emotionally attached to Cora. I don’t know whether that’s due to the audio version or if the book conveys that as well. I’ve read some other reviews that suggest I’m not alone in that opinion. Secondary characters and flashbacks into their lives are there to depict more nuggets of abuse, not really contributing to the main story. Only one of the flashbacks actually ties up a plot thread.

This is my first try at an audio book and I have to say I’m a bit iffy on the format. That’s mainly due to my attention tending to wander. The reader seemed pretty good. He changed his voice a bit for different characters but not so much that it was jarring. I don’t know that it would be a format I’d end up using much but it was certainly worth a try. I’d say the book and story were good but not great. I’ve read other fictional accounts depicting slavery that I couldn’t put down and thought about afterwards. This won’t stick with me but maybe that’s due to the audio format. Your mileage may vary.