Audiobooks are a saviour

Two red books enclosed within black headphones

When I got a copy of Paul Theroux’s classic “The Great Railway Bazaar” in audiobook format I was pretty excited by the idea of being taken along for the ride while I reclined.

I’ve read many of the American author’s travel books over the years so the idea of sitting comfortably and hearing it read to me really appealed.

This was in about 2005. Despite repeated attempts, it’s taken me a long time to finish the audiobook. Concentrating for more than a few moments was too big a challenge. My mind wandered off track almost as soon as I sat down to hear about where Theroux was passing through.

I finally returned to the travel odyssey in June after a health setback (which I’ve written about earlier, see “An unplanned hiatus“). As I was in recovery mode I was able to clear my brain of distractions. Not having to race off and do things seemed to enhanced my powers of attentiveness. Within a few days of re-staring I was transported through Asia, along the Trans Siberian Express and back to London from the point where I left off several years earlier.

The voice of the narrator matters a lot. He or she can add a whole dimension to a book that remains disguised when reading alone. In “His illegal self” by Peter Carey the narrator uses different ‘voices’ for the main characters. Seven year old Che with a New York accent comes across as naive yet world weary and smart.

Not all audiobooks are created equal, so I’ve been fortunate to strike narrators that compel me to the end every book I’ve downloaded. This is important when it takes more than 15 hours to listen to a tome.

Of course audiobooks have actually been around for quite a long time. Our local library still has boxy cassette and cd packs. In recent months Wellington City Library has been heavily promoting their eLibrary services.

At the moment I’ve got a choice of downloading 684 English language audiobooks offered through something called Overdrive, and about 70 Australian and New Zealand ones offered by Bolinda. The range would be larger if I had a Windows computer, as many audiboos are only offered in the restrictive .wma format.

Searching is a bit cumbersome so I haven’t yet looked in depth. I recognise a few authors I’ve read in the past, including Mark Kurlansky and Michael Pollan, so I will get around to looking. I’m really grateful the library offers the service to residents so I shouldn’t quibble.

As I haven’t been in a frame of mind to compare competing commercial audiobook resellers, I’ve signed up with audible.com (a subsidiary of the giant all-purpose retailer Amazon). I was attracted to this store as they offered an staggering 80,000 audiobooks to choose from. Finding ones I want to read is a bit of a grind. The search process here is also quite cumbersome, so it takes time to find promising looking books. It would be churlish to complain about having so many choices.

It’s not surprising that there is a tendency for the big name authors to dominate the audiobook shelves. Much as you’ll notice on the travel books rack in main street booksellers like Whitcoulls, works by writers such as Michael Palin and Bill Bryson are well represented. I can understand why publishers concentrate on the mainstream, but there are gaping holes if you’re looking for more obscure titles.

As I’m actually listening to the books I’ve signed up to an audible.com deal that entitles me to a book a month for a set price (about NZ$18). It’s an easy process to transfer the hefty files to my MP3 player.

Try as I might, I can’t see myself spending hours chugging through works by the old greats (whose works are no longer protected by copyright). The librovox collection is really impressive – volunteer readers read aloud a huge range of book, poems, plays and more, which are then freely available. Ultimately all books in the public domain will be recorded if librovox achieve their dream. Now, that’s a lot of listening.

My laudable intentions to catch up on classics has failed in print, so I’m not optimistic I’ll be more successful at getting started on my list of worthy tomes in audiobook format. For now, I’ll stick to being entertained and transported to other places.

Photo credit: acastrillejo.

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