Saturday, August 23, 2008

The man with the short gray attention span

Until recently, my only experience with audio books was through the cassette player in my old Subaru, listening to some Louis L'Amour tapes my mom loaned me for the long drive from Montana to Philadelphia. Maybe it was the road noise, or maybe it was Louis L'Amour, but somewhere on a particularly tedious stretch through Indiana, I concluded that audio books were not really my cup of tea.

Listening to books, my attention tends to wander. Sometimes half a chapter will go by before it returns. By then I'm not sure who's shooting who, and trying to rewind to just the right spot when you're driving is sort of like texting when you're driving -- the sport of fools. Also, I have this problem when male readers do women's voices, and vice versa. It just seems faintly ridiculous, and takes me out of the story.

But recently my friend Yvonne showed me the wonders of the New York Public Library's audio book collection. For a flat fee you get access to thousands of titles, including some very popular authors, that can be downloaded and played on any MP3 player -- no iPod required. I downloaded Lawrence Block's The Girl With the Long Green Heart and have spent the last couple of nights listening to it before drifting off to sleep.

This turns out to be a problem. With a print version, I know know I'm done reading, generally by the sound of the book hitting the floor. With an MP3, I might wake up at 2 a.m. and the guy is still rambling along as though I've been hanging on every word -- and he's just wrapping up Chapter 18. Yeah, I can skip back, but that would involve knowing precisely when I drifted off.

And again: the reader has a nice hardboiled baritone, but I always wince when he pitches it up to voice the willowy redhead who is central to the plot. Let's just say my suspension of disbelief gets unsuspended in a hurry.

That said, I do like the idea of having books around when I'm in no position to read them: walking the dog, say, or the running on the treadmill at the Y, or staring moodily into the middle distance. I'll probably try a few more titles.

Anybody else have anything good or bad to say about audio books? Check out the New York Public Library site and let me know what you think.


Jessie K said...

I'm with you....I'd have a hard time paying attention to the dulcet tones of someone reading AT me. No, I prefer to read my own books.

Lucid Lunatic said...

I have longstanding difficulties with audio books. As nice as they can be during long cross country car rides, too often I find the narrator getting in the way of my enjoyment of the story. They tend to add their own interpretations of the text into their readings and it simply drives me up the wall. I can do my own interpreting, thank you very much.

If only more of them would read in a nice uninflected monotone.

Raven said...

I've been listening to audiobooks for several years, and I love them. I'm always in the middle of an audiobok. And I sometimes listen to book that run thirty hours or more.

Audiobooks are great because they're like buying time... I get to "read" a book while I'm doing something else.

It's very rare that I can just listen to an audiobook without something to do with my hands. So I listen to them primarily on my commute, while doing housework, or while doing some manual-labor hobby. If the book is particularly good or I'm having eyestrain issues, I may listen to a book while resting, but that's pretty rare.

A bad narrator can ruin an audiobook, and it's a very rare narrator that does both believable male and female voices. I'm fortunate enough that cross-gender voicing generally doesn't bother me. I love the added layer that a good performance brings to a good book. It's a different experience from reading it on paper, but I enjoy them both.

I'll agree with the "lunatic" just a bit, and note that I sometimes disagree with the reader's selected tone of voice or other interpretation of the text. But I don't find it happening enough to ruin my enjoyment.

If you haven't listened to many audiobooks, it's hard to form a good opinion... it's like saying you don't like movies because you don't like Harrison Ford.

I suggest trying something narrated by Frank Muller... before his accident, he was the king of narration. And he could make me believe in the women and children as well as the men. Frank could read the back of a cereal box and make you believe. :)

Raven said...

Oh, hey... Kansans can get FREE access to the same audiobook collection (provided by Overdrive) by simply getting a Kansas Library Card from their local city library.

No need to send money to an out-of-state library for the same thing.

Dave Knadler said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Raven. I'll check that out. You're right: Probably a good idea to hear a few more audio-books before writing off the form.