>Listening to Voices

>Lately I’ve become a consumer of audio books. I’ve done this before, years ago, when I was working on getting a house ready for sale. Mind you, I’ve always read while cleaning or cooking, but it’s pretty hard to read while painting, hence the audio books.

The latest spree isn’t painting related (though it could be soon. I mean, all of this house needs painting, but I’m waiting for summer.) I’ve just taken up long walks, and audio books help.

It has also caused some strange shifts in my reading habits, as I’ve discovered that just like reading authors in Portuguese then in English isn’t the same. I don’t know if it’s extraordinary translators or simply ideas more suited to being expressed in one language than the other, but I loved some authors in Portuguese that I can’t read in English and vice-versa.

So, that’s the first:

1- not all my favorite authors translate well to audio books. Though so far I’ve found I’ve got a greater tolerance for books in audio than in reading. Some language issues that bother me in reading sound a lot more plausible in voice. I think that this is because hearing things spoken makes them somehow more real than reading them. Hearing is believing. (In this it might help to know I grew up with radio news, as opposed to TV news, so maybe I’m conditioned to consider spoken things “true” I guess.)

1a) I cannot listen to F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series, one of my absolutely favorite series, and one of the very few I buy in hardcover. Mind you, I can’t listen to horror, either, but I don’t read horror. Repairman Jack is a thriller with horrific elements. I can read it fine. In fact, when it comes out I usually read it in the evening/night. So why can’t I listen to it? I dream about it. In detail. Graphically.

There is a second find:

2 – I’m more likely to get subtexts in a book listening to it read.
Well, either that or I simply don’t function well while reading and washing dishes, and making sure the book doesn’t fall in the water. But Terry Pratchett, for instance, is infinitely “richer” in audio books.


3- I’m more likely to catch the voice of the book while listening to it audio. I mean, I’m more likely to start speaking and writing like that book. This means I CANNOT listen to Georgette Heyer while writing space opera. Otherwise, my space people will be going “Handsomely over the bricks, my dear. What can you possibly signify?” OTOH once I caught this mechanism, it makes it easier to stay on voice. I listen to the book with the closest “feel” to what I’m trying to write.

But the fourth and most awesome discovery is that I feel MUCH closer to the writer’s personality when I listen to books than when I read them. I can feel the person, there as it were. And the realization suddenly hits me:

4- I’m listening to the author tell a story. When these are the voices of a dead author – like Heinlein – or even an author who was much younger when he wrote something – like Pratchett’s early work – it feels like the narrator captured a moment in time and brought it to me, still alive an pulsing.

To my mind that’s a form of magic.

So, what are your experiences with audio books? (I don’t ask about movies, because we all know what they do.) Any fun anecdotes? (Oh, yeah, like the time the kids came in and I was – years ago. Got books from library, so had to go with what they had – painting and listening to a Nora Robert’s ahem scene. To this day they talk about me listening to porn.) HOW do you feel about audio books? Are they – to you – a legitimate translation of the story? Or do they feel somehow wrong, and like a completely different thing? And is it just me who reacts differently to the same book, read versus narrated?


  1. >I don't multitask. I can't listen to a book and do anything else. I can't even fall asleep. Tom listens to them all the time while commutting, in bed, mowing the lawn, working in the shop. He's got an MP3 player and ear phones.I've listened to a single audio book. Falling Free by Lois Bujold, because I couldn't find it in any other format. The reader used different voices for each character, in cluding a wretchedly screechy whine for one of the most important characters. Now that I've got the book, I can't read it without (1) that screech intruding and (2) remembering ahead, word-for-word the whole book. An almost perfect auditory memory is only a blessing in (not) taking class notes. It was two years before I'd forgotten enough of the audio rendition to be able to read the whole book.

  2. >I've listened to a number of books in audio form. They are especially useful on very long driving trips such as the ones my friends and I take to go camping in Yellowstone.I find that the narrator makes or breaks an audiobook, regardless of the quality of the text. A good narrator (or narrators) can destroy what is otherwise a good book. They can also make an average book more entertaining.

  3. >I listen to audio books while doing things that would be dangerous if I had a book in my hand (don't know how you manage ironing, Sarah!) or during long drives.I find that, mostly, I get much more out of a book that I read than one that's read to me. Part of it may be just that I'm a visual person. But part is that I clearly *hear* the character voices in my head; plus see them — reading to me is very much like a private movie. Writing is, too. Except when I write I have the full sensory suite going on, and it's Hell to pick out what I have to tell the reader, and what's just the extra layers that they don't need.But a book on audio that's one I've already read is, for me, even more disappointing than a movie. Because you know that changes and cuts are going to be made to a movie. But hearing an unabridged book where the reader doesn't have the voice I imagined, and doesn't give the words the same cadences, just drives me bonkers. It's like talking face to face with your husband, but his words come out of his mouth sounding like Marilyn Monroe is speaking them. Just Not Right. 🙂

  4. >Hi Sarah,My kids love the Harry Potter books (read by Steven Fry, not the other guy), and as Paul says, they are great for long drives – especially in Oz where the vast majority of the interior is desert.I did have a moment of poor judgement on one audio book though. The kids and I were driving, listening to Stardust, read and written by Neil Gaiman. I'd read it years before and the kids had seen the movie so I thought it would be okay.I stopped to get some drinks and a snack, leaving the audio going in the car so the kids wouldn't get restless. I come back to find the kids looking at me with stunned faces as Mr Gaiman calmly reads a graphic sex scene between a human and a fairy.Needless to say, that CD got marked with a red X.It's actually really hard to read your own stuff into audio format. I've been putting it off for a while but I'm supposed to do a recording of one of my shorts for radio and I SO HATE the sound of my own voice. I mean I REALLY HATE IT!Not so much like running fingers over a chalkboard, as a cheese grater.

  5. >Matapam,I have to multitask when doing housework, otherwise I don't DO it. It's deadly boring…Someday I'll get the money to get a decent up to date recorder and a new version of dragon and dictate while cleaning or sewing. Last time I tried to record-dictate was when I lived in a small mountain town and walked while dictating. A police car followed me for three blocks. Considering this was the third Shakespeare book, I wonder what was going through their minds "She's speaking in iambic pentameter! She's either a terrorist or a time-traveller. Stick with her, Bob."

  6. >Paul,Absolutely. I love the narrator for Pratchett. And I have now tried to listen to Friday (Heinlein's) FOUR times and quit a quarter of the way through. The woman reading clearly DOESN'T like Heinlein and gives the narrator the most grating, annoying, smug voice possible. Mind you, I know it's not her natural voice because she changes it for other other characters, but … ew.

  7. >Lin,well, I put the book on the bookshelf in front of me, and I iron. However, it's funny how people are put together, isn't it? I normally don't "hear" books. I get inside the main character's head, and stay there. I "hear" thoughts. Sometimes "see" but no auditory effects in my head.So I actually prefer to LISTEN to books I've ALREADY read. It makes them more real and brings out nuances I didn't know were there. Unless the narrator is a pain, of course.

  8. >Chris,My problem is not all of my characters have a Russian accent by way of the Iberian peninsula. (It's actually a Portuguese accent and mid-range hearing loss, but… It sounds Eastern European.) Other than that I love reading my stories. I just don't like hearing myself read.I lent Dog's Body to a friend's five year old son, and then remembered there's dogs mating it in. Fortunately the child was so young it went RIGHT over his head. 🙂 (He's now married and will be a father in a couple of months, which means in five years I can repeat the feat. Whee!)

  9. >I was trained from the age of two to fall asleep listening to books on tape (usually they corresponded with my Disney picture books, then they evolved into Louisa May Alcott books) so I usually can't listen to them without falling asleep. The only exception to this rule has been THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. If you haven't read the book, I high recommend listening to it rather than reading it because the way they use 3 different narrators to capture the distinctive voices of the novel is brilliant.

  10. >Taylor,I think you're a year or two older than my older son, and he was a total devotee of audio books when he was two and three. The weird things were the books he liked. Our cleaning lady at the time gave him the collected works of Kipling(among other, not children books) on tape, and Robert became enamoured of the words and would memorize them and repeat them around the house. I think it is responsible for a lot of his "instinctive" word sense. Anyway, I was pregnant with his brother at the time, and I listened to that tape SO MUCH that I started getting physically sick when I heard it. So… it disappeared.The other day he asked me what happened to it… 😛

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