23 December 2013

Listening to audiobooks for free

Fiona Shaw
I've never really listened to an audiobook. I don't have a driving commute or other time of day where listening to the audio makes much sense. Being a child of television means that audio is something one has on when one is doing something else. And I think that listening to a book requires actual concentration so I don't think I would get much out of it if I tried to do something else. The other challenge for me is that I find spoken word recordings to have a lovely soporific quality and that seems to defeat the purpose as well.

But I have been intrigued lately with the idea of audiobooks. I will never belong to the camp who believes that listening = reading, but I thought it might be fun to listen to one while actually following along with the book itself. I thought of this particularly about Anita Brookner novels. I am in the process of rereading all of her work in chronological order and thought it would be fun to hear someone read it to me while I followed along.

It was in that mood that I clicked on Audible.com last night. I had never been to the website before but I had seen it mentioned on many a blog and Twitter feed. The first thing I did was type in 'Anita Brookner'. Was well pleased to see that there are ten of her 23 novels available in audio format. I first clicked on the sample of Prunella Scales reading A Closed Eye. I love Scales' voice, but didn't find it entirely suited the Brookner voice in my head. Then I went on to Anna Massey who reads two of them. This was much better. (Wasn't Massey in the film version of Hotel du Lac that I saw years ago and can't find these days on DVD?) Still, I wasn't convinced that this worked for me. So I clicked through to other things Massey recorded. This began an odyssey that kept me up until 2:00 in the morning.


  • Emma Thompson is wonderful reading Howard's End. I wish she would do more recordings.
  • I came across a dramatized version of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt that had a truly all star cast including Ed Asner, Ted Danson, Richad Dreyfus, Hector Elizondo, Stacy Keach, and Ed Begley, Jr.
  • Was intrigued by Claire Danes reading The Handmaid's Tale, but not sure if I actually liked it.
  • Elizabeth McGovern reading Alias Grace could possibly make me like that book which I didn't really care for despite reading it twice.
  • As I surfed around it seemed to me that some books work better than others. Nevil Shute novels seem to work particularly well in audio version.
  • I think Pym works well, but I am not sure I like the narrator doing a special voice when reading the letter from the archdeacon.
  • Then I stumbled across Fiona Shaw reading the letters of Jane Austen. Now that was a success. Fiona Shaw. How fabulous. And then to see that she also reads Brookner's A Family Romance. How did I miss that earlier? She is the perfect Brookner reader.
  • Penelope Wilton is amazing and should do more of these.
  • Penelope Keith is the bee's knees. She is an amazing narrator. Too bad almost everything she records is Agatha Raisin. She is so good though she might actually make me like Raisin.
  • Victorian literature seems well suited for reading aloud. Not sure I think much of contemporary books being read.
  • Paul Auster reads his own novels really well. Not surprisingly his voice is just right.
  • I love the various author interviews available.
  • Disappointed that May Sarton isn't represented. Need someone with a flintly but friendly voice with a mildish New England accent.
  • Lucy Scott who reads The Making of a Marchioness is wonderful.
  • Emilia Fox is fantastic reading everything Austen, Mitford, Christie, Archer, and she does it all justice.
  • The unknown narrators are usually better than the famous actors. Not because the actors are bad. but because I find myself distracted by the fact that I know their work.

As I listened on and on, jumping around sampling all sorts of my favorite books, struggling to keep my eyes open at 1:53 a.m., I realized something. I love listening to these wonderful voices reading wonderful books but I still don't think I could follow a whole book. This, added to the fact that I am trying not to spend money these days means that I probably will not become a member of Audible or other service (if there is any) anytime soon. I realized that I enjoyed the free sample recordings enough that it actually sated my desire for spoken word. And let's face it. If a four minute sample satisfies my urge, could I ever really sit through eight hours?


  1. I "joined" Audible for a few months--I signed up for the free book and forgot to close the account for a few months. When I remembered, I had enough credits for several books so I got a couple huge history tomes that I already owned the actual books of. I like to listen and read at the same time. I especially like to do this (I have other free audio books) when it is a tough book or a non-fiction with lots of detail. Regular fiction I just listen to. You should check out the sites that offer free audio books. Some of the same people who do "for sale" ones, do some free ones too.

  2. My mom has been legally blind since she was in her early 20s, so my sister and I grew up with her listening to audiobooks all the time. We grew up with audiobooks as another natural way to read (because this was the only way my mom could actually read a book). Then the Kindle came along, and now she can read on that with the print made super big (bigger than a large print book, which she also can't see well enough at this point), but she still prefers audiobooks.

    I love reading words on a page (or on a Kindle, depending on the circumstances), so I have always preferred reading that way, but now my husband has been having a hard time reading that way (for a couple different reasons), so my mom got him into audiobooks. This is a man who maybe read three books a year before (even though he loves reading), but since he's gotten I to audiobooks, he's read about 10 or 12 books in the last two months. It's fantastic.

    My mom let us join her Audible account, and she has SO MANY books, so I've recently started listening to them again, too. I'm always go, go, go, so it's been nice to just sit for an hour here and there and listen to someone read to me. And if I have things to do, I can listen while I'm doing them and still pay attention (depending on what I'm doing). I've really enjoyed it.

    My favorite narrator (so far) is Jim Dale, who narrates the Harry Potter books (which I actually listened to years ago after reading the treebooks). He's fantastic.

  3. Thomas, I have found that I enjoy Brookner's books in audio better than reading. Unexplainable. Maybe because I listened to the first one on a car trip. Cheers, D

  4. Were we talking about this Saturday evening or am I getting my weekend in a muddle? Bob loves to listen to lectures and books 'on tape' while driving while I have a hard time concentrating. Luckily he's driving home to Ohio today alone so I won't have to listen! I much prefer karaoke style driving with my 10 year old ipod on shuffle.

  5. I'm right there with you. Hour long podcasts sometimes are a struggle for me attention-wise (and finding an hour when I won't be interrupted), so I even break those up sometimes into 20 minute chunks. A whole book? Probably not going to happen. DH has a commute and loves to listen to books - it's about the only way he can "read along" with the rest of us (although, like you, I personally don't count it as reading!), but even on long car trips, if the family pops in an audio book, I'm mentally checked out before the first chapter is read.

  6. I started listening to audiobooks because the radio here is so awful and I just can't do NPR all day. Plus, I have so many books on my to-read list, anything I can do to whittle it down is a bonus. Often I'll have the audio in the car and a print copy at home, so I don't have to sit in the driveway if I've come to particularly exciting part. (Sometimes I even have TWO print copies -- one at home and a library copy at work).

    I do find that the reader can ruin or elevate a book. Right now I'm listening to The Old Curiosity Shop narrated by Anton Lesser who is just wonderful. He makes the funny parts funnier, and the awful characters even scarier. He's wonderful at creating distinct voices for everyone.

    Audiobooks also help me to slow down and listen to things I would tend to skip over, like extended action scenes which tend to bore me.

  7. The DC public library doesn't have any of Brookner or Pym in audio version, but they have other authors you like (Trollope for example.) You might borrow something to see if you enjoy an entire book in that format. I can recommend Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.

  8. I get all of my audiobooks from the library and listen to them while I walk. I like podcasts too but to lose myself in audio, I need a long recording and most podcasts are on the short side.

  9. "I thought it might be fun to listen to one while actually following along with the book itself."
    > Paradoxically, I find that if I follow on the page something being read out loud I am less likely to remember it than if I only heard or read the same passage.

    Apparently the brain processes what we read or hear differently:

  10. Thank you for posting this. Over the last couple of years, I have come to trust your good taste, and I am inspired to give audiobooks another try. I dabbled blindly once or twice, but was put off by unsuitable matches of voice, tone, and rhythm between the recorded voice and the written text. I am interested to give some of these a listen. Thanks again.

    Happy Holidays to you!

  11. I started listening to audiobooks over 10 years ago when I was spending a ridiculous amount of time in the car. As my driving time decreased, I began to search for other things to do while listening. Now I love to listen to audiobooks on my walks, and while cooking. I got a lot of listening time in while wrapping presents last week, too.

    Think I'll investigate Neville Shute audiobooks (never considered listening to him) and I know Paul Auster is already on my audible wish list.

    Very interesting post, Thomas.

  12. I don’t do it very often, since I have a short commute to work, but occasionally I will listen to an audio book provided I have already read the book first and the audio version is available at my library. It is a nice way to revisit an old favorite.

    I agree with Karen K. above that listening can help me with certain scenes that I might find difficult to read/follow otherwise. I typically have real trouble understanding spatial relationships in books when I read (he went up two flights of stairs and turned right towards the library, across the hall there was a suit of armor…) which are sometimes clearer to me when I listen to them being read.

    I also agree that Victorian novels lend themselves to being read out loud. I particularly enjoyed listening to Simon Vance read Bleak House.

  13. I love audiobooks & always have one on the go in the car although lately I've been listening to podcasts since I worked out how to play my iPad through the car's speakers. I'm sorry that AudioGo in the UK (formerly Chivers & BBC Audio) in the UK have gone into receivership because they had the best list of titles & narrators. However, other publishers have started snapping up the AudioGo lists so hopefully my favourite narrators will keep reading. I can now also listen to downloadable eaudiobooks from my library which is much easier than juggling CDs & also eliminates the problem of scratched CDs. Chivers did the Pym books many years ago on cassette with wonderful narrators. I still hear their voices when I reread the books. Susan Jameson read A Glass of Blessings, Julia McKenzie read Some Tame Gazelle & Juliet Stevenson read Excellent Women. They've been rerecorded by another company (Magna) since the Virago reprints but I haven't listened to any of the new versions.

  14. What a great way to pass an evening...will have to cruise the samples one cold, winter night.

    The reader/performer absolutely makes or breaks an audiobook for me. The first audiobook I attempted was back in the mid-90s when I did a lot of driving between Chicago and Lincoln, NE. Moby Dick was my first choice and it was read by a guy with a voice so stunningly awful that I only got through "Call me Ishmael." (It was part of one of those low budget, library edition, great books of the humanities collections.) Thankfully, during that first excursion into "books on cassette" I also had with me The Autobiography of Malcolm X read by (I think) James Earl Jones. That definitely kept me rolling.

    I recently signed up for a membership with audiobooks.com, via Books on the Nightstand.

  15. I'm a big Audible fan - their customer service is second to none if there happens to be a problem. I enjoy my (too short) drive to work and any other driving necessary so much better now.

    I have found I remember audio so much better, it seems to stay fresher in memory somehow, though a couple of years I struggle to remember if I actually listened or read a book.

    Working my way through Nicholas Nickleby at present, which is wonderfully atmospheric, and like all Dickens, I feel is better read aloud.

    Great post, and a happy Christmas to you, Thomas!

  16. Laura C: I would think that audio books could be really great for difficult books.

    Heather: I can only imagine how important audio books are for the visually impaired. And how great to have access to your mom's stash.

    Denise: I can understand how audiobooks would make Brookner more pleasant for some.

    Stefan: I don't think we covered audiobooks at dinner. I've started using my iPad in the kitchen to listen to spoken word stuff on BBC radio while I cook, but don't have much time in the car.

    Susan: I think I could use laundry folding time for listening to things. I usually let the folding pile up until there is way too much of it, not to mentioning ironing. And I find the conditions for folding aren't very good in front of my TV--not enough places to stack the folded clothes. This might be an opportunity for audio. But truthfully, I am more likely to go the podcast or BBC Radio route.

    Karen K: When I watch TV I use the rewind and pause buttons a lot as John and I feel the need to talk about certain things. With audio--at least while driving, the rewind function is not available and I find myself missing a lot. I've never really been a Dickens fan, but I can see how that could change with audio.

    Mary: I really should try Housekeeping in audio form because I found the style of the prose not much to my liking. Might work better for me on tape.

    Ti: My OCD doesn't usually allow me to have on headphones while I walk. I worry to much i am missing signs of danger. And on the flip side, I love listening to the birds.

    David: Thanks for the link. I don't retain much when listening.

    CW: I like that someone thinks I have good taste. There is definitely much that can go wrong in the production of an audio book. It must drive some author's crazy to hear the results.

    JoAnn: Oh, wrapping presents would be the perfect time for audio books. In the first place I love to wrap, and in the second, that seems so darn cozy.

    Ruthiella: Revisiting books I have already read seems like a fun idea. And you and other commenters are definitely putting me in the mood for audio Dickens.

    Lyn: Oh my gosh, I would LOVE to hear Julia McKenzie read Pym. That seems perfect to me. And I am glad you mentioned Juliet Stevenson because I meant to mention in my post that she was one of the best narrators I came across.

    Chris: Having driven between Minneapolis and Lincoln a few times I can attest that that would be the perfect car ride for audio books. (Sorry Iowa, but you are one flat state.) I have resisted Moby Dick for so long, I can never get into it. Maybe an audio version would help. James Earl Jones reading Malcolm X would be great. Although it is such a readable book I wouldn't necessarily feel the need.

    Serenknitity: You must love them, not many people would say their drive to work is too short. You are the third person to mention Dickens. I think that might be my way into audio books.

  17. Loving this post Thomas!! I too have an ambivalent relationship with audiobooks and found much to resonate with here And so much that was useful and helpful Am going directly to Audible to try those samples!!
    Great discussion too


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