Tag Archives: audiobooks

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.

The audiobook and I

I have never taken to the audiobook as a format. It’s a matter of personal preference. I know some people love them, that they’re the only good format for some people, and I cheer these people on. But they’re problematic if like me, you’re not great at retaining what you’ve only heard, not read.

Back in January, when I started the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I guessed at which tasks might be the hardest for me to fulfill. Horror and the dystopic/post-apocalyptic novel were obvious problems, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about reading about politics, and then of course, there was the audiobook. As it turned out, I managed all of those without too much of a struggle, except the last. It couldn’t be just any audiobook, you see, but one that had won an Audie Award. So I kept putting this off and putting this off, and suddenly it was December and I had to decide if I was going to finish the challenge or not.

So there I was, floundering around, trying to figure out first what books had won Audies, and then cross-checking the winners against what was available at my library (audiobooks, it turns out, are noticeably more expensive than print books). But after less struggle than I probably deserved for all that procrastinating, I ended up with an audiobook that:

  1. had won an Audie Award,
  2. was owned by my library,
  3. hadn’t been checked out by some other procrastinating soul finishing up their own Read Harder challenge, and
  4. was something I thought I’d enjoy listening to.*

I am listening to Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson, the 2016 Audie winner for Humor. I suppose if I hadn’t put this off for most of the year, I wouldn’t have had the 2016 winners to choose from, so maybe procrastination was a good thing after all. (How am I supposed to learn from experience when experience keeps teaching me that my bad habits work out in the end?) Furiously Happy is ideal for my inexperience with audiobooks. It’s anecdotal and episodic. I don’t have to remember what the protagonist was doing when I shut the book off the night before—okay, I just said that I shut a book off, and that sounds so freaking weird—or what a key discovery from six chapters earlier was, or anything like that. The only constant “characters” are Lawson and her family. This, I can manage.

I found one! (And the cover art matches my mood really well.)

Many audiobooks are famed for their narrators. I hear some people will choose an audiobook more for its narrator than the book itself. Furiously Happy is narrated by Lawson herself. This means the narration is authentic as all get-out (+), but I’m missing the experience of listening to a professional narrator (-). Lawson is doing a fine job; I’m just curious about what the difference might be, if any.

Even though this is going surprisingly well, I’m not sold on audiobooks yet. If my attention wanders, it’s a lot easier to reread a printed page—and that includes one printed in pixels—than relisten to narration. Also, I’m limited in what I can do while listening: I can’t do anything that involves language and words. (Like, say, writing blog posts. Although I’m getting lots of knitting done.) Plus, it’s frustrating that I could probably read this book in about 3 hours, but as an audiobook, it’s 8 hours and 20 minutes. Yes, I’m impatient. It took a while to figure out how to speed up the narration. I haven’t decided if I’m going to stick with that. It shortens the book and I can understand it just fine, but it makes Lawson’s voice unpleasantly shrill. And there are illustrations in the print book that I’m missing. I know, because Lawson talks about them. So far they haven’t been crucial to understanding what’s going on, but I feel like I’m missing out on something cool.

So will I listen to another audiobook once I’m done with this one? Maybe. I bet I’d enjoy the experience a lot more if I had no restrictions on what book I listened to and wasn’t listening to a deadline. Like I said, I haven’t yet heard a book with a professional narrator, and maybe I should try that. But at the same time, I note that there’s no audiobook-related task on the 2017 challenge. Guess how happy I am about that. 🙂


* An unexpected bonus—at this point, I’d have taken a winner of Autobiography/Memoir even though the thought of a unenjoyed genre in an unenjoyed format is off-putting. Yes, you could argue that Furiously Happy is autobiographical. Don’t. I’m enjoying it.