Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Embracing Technology - Audio Books

Today we have a guest post from Kathleen Hagen, who is blind, and has been her entire life. When I asked her to write about her experience with audio books for our technology themed posts this month, I  did not know she was blind. I just saw her comment in a reader forum about needing to buy stock in and figured she could address audio books in a way that I cannot, since I don't often listen to audio books.

I have used Braille since I was five years old, so I read it at a fast rate, but putting books in Braille is a very voluminous process, (the Bible, for example, is 16 large volumes). Starting in the 1930s, the Library of Congress hired actors to read books that would be available only to the blind. These were called Talking Books, and I still read some of them. However, the commercial audio market has provided a much wider market for me.

I should own stock in I’ve bought many hundreds of books since 2005, and I read constantly - in bed, while I’m doing things around the house, in waiting rooms, anywhere at all. I read approximately 20 books a month - mysteries, general fiction, biographies and memoirs, and history.  Since 2005 I have made a journal entry for each book that I have read, and in 2007 I started posting my book entries on Goodreads.

Some people question whether listening to a book is the same as reading a book. I consider listening to be a form of reading. People who don’t agree with that would say I’m illiterate because I don’t read print, and that makes absolutely no sense to me. There’s no downside to reading audio books unless you are a person who can’t process material as well when you receive it orally.  

I have enjoyed some books in audio and some in Braille. For example, I tried to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night as an audio book and it made no sense to me. I could never keep track of what chapter we were in and the numbers didn’t seem to follow each other, so I gave up. When I read it in Braille, I realized that chapters were named in prime numbers instead of in our usual sequence.

On the other hand, I just finished Rob Lowe’s book: Stories I Only Tell my Friends: An Autobiography and I think that book is much more entertaining as an audio book than if I read it in Braille. Rob Lowe narrates the book himself, and it’s like listening to a comedy monologue. Jane Fonda also narrates her books, and they are also much better read as an audio book because it’s like listening to Jane herself talking to you.  

The author is not always the best narrator for his/her book. Elizabeth Edwards narrated her books, and they were so emotionally charged that, at times, she was almost whispering. That made it hard to understand what she was saying. Some men have a hard time showing feelings when they read their own books, and it makes the book sound as if the author had no feelings about it, which is absolutely not true. I was disappointed when I listened to Anderson Cooper read his book. Although he is a wonderfully versatile broadcaster and talk show host, that did not come across as he read his book.

The main advantage to an audio book is that most often they are read by an actor, and audio publishers are careful about who they choose to narrate a book. In the case of a series, readers/listeners will be upset if the narrator changes in the middle of the series. I can’t listen to anyone but Will Patton doing James Lee Burke books. George Guidall has to read books by Craig Johnson and Tony Hillerman for me to enjoy them. I actually do sometimes choose not to read an audio book if I can’t stand the narrator. On the other hand, a good narrator can make even a dull book entertaining.

There are some good audio book list serves as well as a magazine, AudioFile, which reviews audio books. The Audio Publishers Association has its own audio award categories each year. GoodReads has an audio books group where people talk about audio books they’ve read. I enjoy very much being a part of the audio book world.

Kathleen Hagen is a retired staff attorney for Minneapolis Legal Aid, where she worked for 17 years.

Posted by Maryann Miller who read her fist audio book just recently and will post about that next week. Maryann  is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. She also likes to read the funny papers. That's much more fun than reading the hard news.
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  1. Good food for thought. I always wondered how does one sync their daily routine given so much tech stuff around us!!!! The Authors caught on to my thoughts. Great book, not to be missed

  2. Terrific posting by Hagen. I listened to audiobooks in my car during long commutes to work and it's a great way to keep up with literature when demands while at home keep my reading to a minimum. I, too, consider it reading, plain and simple. Nice addition to the piece regarding who's doing the reading as a function of enjoyment of listening. It does matter who's doing the reading/narrating of the work. Thanks for the unique information.

  3. This was really interesting to "hear" from your point of you, Kathleen, thank you. I'll never forget the first time I witness the power of audio books. It was 14 years ago, and a woman had driven to my PA farmhouse from NJ to look at a horse. For the longest time she didn't get out from her car. I finally went out to see if she was all right and she was dabbing at her eyes and blowing her nose. "I'm sorry," she said. "I was listening to an audiobook on the way over and I had to finish it." It was Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. That was such powerful testimony that directly after selling the horse I went out and bought the book!

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Parag and Gerri, and glad you found the post helpful. It was quite fascinating for me to learn a little more about audio books, especially from the perspective on someone who cannot see.

    One of the questions I wanted to ask Kathleen, before I found out she was blind, was what is the difference between reading a paper book, via listening to an audio book in terms of absorbing the story. There is a significant difference for me, which I will write about next week, but I wondered what it was like for other folks. I hope some others who read and listen to books will share their experiences here.

  5. I always find it interesting when people say they listen to audio books while doing other things (including driving). For me the real pleasure in reading comes from being totally immersed in the story. I can't do that while multi-tasking.

  6. I've found that genre commercial fiction is easier to listen to than more literary works. I tried to listen to Alice McDermott's National Book Award winner Charming Billy on audio and could not do it! The slow unfolding of plot can be downright painful on audio.

    Plus, the characters were not tagged with regularity, and after several minutes of he/she I'd lose track. Or, have to end the session and tart up again (I was doing a lot of driving at this time) and be completely lost as to who was who—and rewinding the cassette to find out is an inexact science at best.

    But a mystery, like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, is perfect. I think more lively works, with dialogue, inspire the actors reading them as well. There's just so much you can do with long passages of narrative.

  7. I'm imagining James Earl Jones reading my books.

  8. LD and Katherine, I may snag part of your comments for my post next week. I agree about the difficulty of listening to some stories, and I think that is what Kathleen pointed out when she cited the problem she had with one book and preferred it in Braille.

  9. Christopher, Jones has such a tremendous voice, I think we all would love for him to read our books, although the lady who did my One Small Victory had a wonderful voice and did a good job.

  10. This post fascinated me because the idea of reading a book via the sense of hearing adds an element that doesn't exist is sight reading. The interpretation of the words by the person whose reading is being recorded will flavor the story/information for the listener. Of course, the writer can bold or italicize certain words to emphasize them or to indicate internal dialogue or thought processes, but the sight reader still has the option to put his or her own spin on the chapter or scene. Listening to the words, however, eliminates that option and puts the listener somewhat at the mercy of the reader. This explains why the choice of an exceptional reader is essential to the success of an audio book.

  11. Like Christopher, I want James Earl Jones to read my books! :-)

  12. Maryann, your comment has me giggling. Jones has an amazing voice, to be sure. But I can just hear him reading my first-person story about a modern dancer at war with her body!!! That would be hilarious.

  13. Kathryn, you are so right about how funny it would be to have Jones narrate your book. Maybe you should see if Meryl Streep is available.

  14. I LOVE audio books! They let me read and drive at the same time :D

  15. The reading versus listening debate reminds me of when my little boy was born. We taught him ASL; we were called lazy parents for "copping out", and told that we should force our son to talk.

    Sign Language and speech are both legitimate forms of communication. Whether you read something with your eyes or your ears, you're still absorbing the words. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  16. Oh, and I'd like Alan Rickman or Patrick Stewart to read for me, please!

  17. Great post! I used to listen to audio books. I often wonder if I should consider this for my books.

    Kathleen is an inspiration and I'm glad I stopped by today!

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  19. I like audio books and used to listen to them on the drive to work and back. But I know work from home, so don't listen unless it's while I'm on a road trip. I have to admit, I don't look to see who's doing the narration, but I agree that some readers are better than others. Can't remember the name of the book, but there was one I never finished because the reading of it was so bad.

  20. Some books are totally different experiences in paper and audio. Frank McCourt's ANGELA'S ASHES is a prime example. Saddest. Book. Ever. But, when he reads it, some of the scenes are roll-on-the-floor funny. Not because they aren't sad, but because the "humor" part of the "black humor" comes out through his delivery.

    THE JOY LUCK CLUB and THE PRINCESS BRIDE were different books in audio than they were on paper.

    Thanks for delivering another great post, BRP!

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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