Format change

It started innocently enough: my book group decided to read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis for our January 2020 meeting. I’d read Doomsday Book years ago—many years ago—but all I could remember was the premise and the ending, and that wasn’t enough to get through a discussion. But I didn’t want to buy a copy because I knew I wasn’t going to love it enough to want to keep it, so I tried to borrow it from the library. Naturally, with everyone in my book group wanting to read it, along with anyone in the Twin Cities who wanted to read about a historic plague just before a modern one came along, every copy of the print version and the ebook was checked out. However, the audiobook was available. I hadn’t dealt with an audiobook since December 2016, and then only because the book challenge I was doing that year had “listen to an audiobook” as one of its requirements.

Look, I told myself, this is doable. You’ve already read the book, you know generally how the story goes, and if you miss something while reading it, chances are you can fake it. So I took the plunge.


  • It was available when I needed it. Let’s not underestimate how important this point is.
  • So that’s how you pronounce those Middle English names! (Maybe.)
  • Being able to make progress in the book while doing something else entirely. Like, say, knitting.
  • Deadline looming? You can speed the playback up. I was still comfortable at 1.25x, but I eventually had to go to 1.5x to finish the book in time for the book club discussion. In print, Doomsday Book is 608 pages long; that’s 26 hours and 20 minutes as an audiobook.
  • Can be downloaded from the library or store.
  • Just as portable as ebooks, and can be accessed through a smartphone.


  • I’m more of a visual learner than an audial one, and I missed seeing people’s names written down. What I was hearing as “Lady Hermione” in Doomsday Book turned out to be spelled “Lady Imeyne.”
  • Not able to take notes in the book itself or bookmark interesting passages. Must write notes or quotes separately.
  • Hard to go back and reread a passage if your attention wanders. The software allows for 30-second rewinds, but it’s still a guessing game.
  • Even with speeding up the playback, it takes longer to get through an audiobook than reading a print edition.

But I made it through, went to the book club meeting, and that would’ve been the end of that except for the pandemic. I started working from home. Not surprisingly, I’m working on projects that can easily be moved out of the office. Some of them involve data entry, nothing I need to think all that much about. And sure, listening to music helps pass the time, but I realized there were other things I could be listening to, namely audiobooks.* Which is how I ended up listening to The True Queen by Zen Cho. By sheer coincidence, it had the same narrator as Doomsday Book—Jenny Sterlin—so oddly, they felt like a series, despite being written by two different authors 27 years apart.

The True Queen was a bit of an experiment in its own right. I’d read Doomsday Book before I listened to it, but The True Queen is a recent-ish release, a long-awaited follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, which I’d read long enough ago that it wasn’t going to help me much with its sequel. Could I follow the story just by listening when I didn’t know in advance how it would go? Yes—and that made me less nervous about tackling audiobooks in general. Oh, I still looked up the characters’ names, and how to spell polong, and hoped that Sterlin was giving me a good idea of how the Malay names were pronounced. But it was a lot more relaxing to be able to listen to the book without a deadline looming on the horizon; the narration sounds increasingly unnatural if you speed it up, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. And after listening to The True Queen, I wanted to reread/listen to Sorcerer to the Crown, and hey, that was available as an audiobook as well, narrated by Sterlin.

So six months after I started all this, I’m currently on my sixth audiobook of the year, figuring out what does and doesn’t appeal to me. For instance, I enjoyed Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, but I don’t think it was particularly effective as an audiobook. I’m not blaming this on the narrator, but on the structure of the novel itself. Much of the book, especially at the beginning, is Lavinia describing things: her poet, her family, the people of the area, her culture. Through this, I learned that I like audiobooks with more dialogue, where the narrator can use their skills to bring several characters to life.

With The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, I discovered another problem: if you just can’t warm up to how the narrator is reading the book, it gets in the way of enjoying the book itself. (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent for print books and ebooks…maybe if I hated the font?) In this case, I liked the story just fine and would like to read more by Seanan McGuire, but I didn’t care for how the narrator did voices. And now I’m back to “rereading”—I read Red Sister in print in 2018, and I’m curious if I’ll get more out of it by listening to it. (And it was available at the library when I needed a new book. Again, this is vital.)

It may take me awhile to branch out from these. If nothing else, it takes more time to get through an audiobook. I don’t want to buy audiobooks—I barely reread the print books I’ve got, and audiobooks cost more. I’m happy to check them out from the library, but around here, anyway, the selection is comparatively limited, and I’m not ready to subscribe to a service like Audible. However, six audiobooks in half a year is six more than I’ve done in most years of my life, so I may finally have gotten the hang of this format.

* And podcasts, yes, but I haven’t gotten into those yet.

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