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I recently got a comment on my review of Wicked Lovely where Elizabeth asked about audiobooks:

“I’m interested you listened on audio; I’ve wanted to get into audiobooks (it seems so much more efficient!) but I haven’t really done so. Are there particular kinds of books you find work well or poorly in that format?”

And since I love audiobooks, I thought I’d make my answer a whole post, which is probably more of an answer than necessary.  I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but I’m too lazy to sift through all the times I’ve mentioned audiobooks on this blog.

I got hooked on audio by listening to Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series.  I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to focus, because I’ve always been more of a visual person, so I chose books that I knew well.  That way, if I lost focus, I wouldn’t be confused or lost in the story.  Another perk about chosing this series was that the audio versions are excellent – and it seems that in general, British books with snappy dialogue translate well to audio (Three Men in a Boat, P.G. Wodehouse, etc.) or maybe just British books in general (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, all of Josephine Tey, Atonement, A Room with a View).

Once I got comfortable with the format, I branched out.  There were a few notable failures – The Lord of the Rings was just too much on audio and I gave up.  I’ve tried a few children’s books on audio that were much better suited to a young reader, perhaps following along with the book, than to an adult feeling nostalgic.  A lot of that has to do with the pace and the reader.  Bunnicula was a howl on audio, and I enjoyed The Series of Unfortunate Events, but I’ve given up on a few where I just wanted to be able to read the story more quickly.

I’ve tried a few full-cast audio books, with mixed results.  His Dark Materials worked really well with that format, with no awkward shifts between various readers, and it helped to keep the dialogue clear since each character had a distinct voice.  On the other hand, I listened to about 1 track of Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest before the voices and musical effects became too much for me.  Every once in a while I switch to a print version part-way through, if I feel like the audio is distracting.

I still use audio books as a way to reread and I’ve found a lot of favorite audio versions that way – The Giver, The Wednesday Wars, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Dairy Queen, the Bartimaeus trilogy, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey…Books where the audio version takes a wonderful book and manages to put even more into it.  The kind that really pull you into the story, or make the funny parts even funnier, or give voice to a great narrator or character.

Sometimes I’ll get an audio version of a grown-up book, because I know that if I had the print version, I might have trouble finding time to read it, especially while I’m in school.  But if I’m listening in the car, I’m less likely to put it down in favor of something short and sweet with instant gratification, and I have a guaranteed number of hours I’ll listen each week.  This is how I finally got sold on David Mitchell, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, and plenty of others.

What I usually do, when I’m putting a book on hold, is look to see if the library has an unabridged audio version.  I try to imagine how that kind of story would translate to audio, and think about my supply of audio books vs. my supply of print books.  I try to keep a few lighter things to listen to at work, during the tedious, alone-in-the-office part of my evenings.   It usually works out to grown-up books in the car, YA books at work, but not always.  I go through phases.  Also, I’m completely addicted – I hate being in the car without a book to listen to.

I haven’t found any real rules about what works on audio and what doesn’t – but if you’re thinking about trying them, and you like to reread favorites, that’s a good place to start.  If an audio version is irritating, give up on it.

Here are a few others, in addition to all those I mentioned before, where I got hooked by the audio version:

Grown-up:  Black Swan Green, Bel Canto, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Suite Francaise, Animal Dreams, Cold Mountain, any David Sedaris, Gilead, The Namesake

Children’s: the Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos, A Long Way From Chicago,Faeries of Dreamdark, Skulduggery Pleasant

YA: Feed, A Countess Below Stairs, Fat Kid Rules the World, The White Darkness, Bloody Jack

March 2009

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