Tag: audio books

Audio, Paper, Ebook, Shoot! (Or, My Book Format Preferences)

For most of my life, if I wanted to read a book, I had to have the book in my hands. There had to be enough light to see by, and I couldn’t really do anything else while I was reading. Even a TV in the background was too distracting for me. Then, in 2009, I got my first Kindle device and my first ebook, which happened to be Jack McDevitt’s Polaris. It was so convenient to be able to get the book instantly and not have it take up any space on the shelves, especially considering the size of the apartment we were living in, with a baby due to arrive any day. In the months that followed, I accumulated and read more ebooks that paper books. Then in February 2013, I set aside my perceptions of audio books, and gave my first one a try. I loved it. From that point right down to today, audio books are my primary format for reading books1.

Given that today, I can get most books in any of three formats (audio, paper, and ebook), how do I go about choosing which to get? There are two ways to answer that question: my ideal book format preferences, and practical book format preferences. Below from left to right is a paper, ebook and audio book I’ve really enjoyed so far in 2021.

My ideal book format preferences

  1. Paper books. Anyone who loves reading and loves books knows that there is something about the tactile nature of holding a paper book in your hands that makes it a full sensory experience. There is the heft of the book. The feeling of the pages. The scent that the pages give off when you riffle them. Some books are beautiful to look at. Big books make a satisfying thud when you close them, and the sound of pages softly turning provides a pleasant heartbeat rhythm to read by. My ideal book format is paper for all of these reasons. And ideally, I am sitting in some quiet place, an enclosed porch looking out over a lake while rain patters on the roof; a beach, with the sound of my kids playing in the sand. The chair in my office while a snow storm brews outside. The book transports me and leaves me where I am all at once.
  2. Audio books. In the absence of a paper book, an audio book serves as a nice substitute. Audio books don’t have the same tactile qualities of paper books, but they have an added dimension that paper books lack: a narrator who gives a performance while reading the book. A good narrator can make a mediocre book tolerable. A great narrator can make a poor book enjoyable, and what they can do to a great book is really remarkable.
  3. Ebooks. Ebooks take no physical space, so I can accumulate a lot of them without worrying about filling my office and the rest of the house with books. Ebooks also allow me to get books instantly. Unlike paper books, there is no practical way to get an ebook signed. There is also no practical way to display ebooks on your bookshelves, so unlike paper books, they serve a strictly utilitarian purpose, and ideally, I would use them only as a last resort, when paper or audiobook editions were unavailable.

My practical book format preferences

1. Audio books

Years ago I had a realization that I would never be able to read all of the books I wanted to read. I decided that it was worth finding was to read as much as I could manage. Up to that point, I’d been reading between 30-50 books a year, but beginning in 2018, I stepped things up. I read 130 books that year, and 110 the next. The numbers have continued to stay high, and a large part of this is due to audio books.

Audio books allow me to read when I am doing other tasks that don’t take much brain power. Prior to audio books, I could not read while on long drives, or while doing chores around the house, or while exercising or out for my morning walks. Since I started listening to audio books, I have filled these moments in addition to the time I’d normally spend reading. I have also worked my way up from listening to audio books at 1x speed to listening to nonfiction at 1.8x – 2.0x (depending on the narrator), and fiction at 1.5x.

In every sense, audio books are the most practical format to allow me to read as much as I possible can in the available time. They are my first choice when it comes to reading a book these days.

2. Audio books in combination with ebooks or paper books

If audio books have a downside, it is that there is not yet a good method for taking notes in them. There is no practical way of highlighting passages or jotting comments in the margins. There are no margins! What I will often do with a book for which I think I will want to take notes, therefore, is listen to the audiobook in combination with either the ebook or the paper edition. What determines this secondary edition is typically (a) do I already own the paper edition, and (b) price. Often, you can get the ebook edition and then “add on” the audio book edition at a reduced price. If the reduced price is less than the cost of an audio book credit, I’ll usually just get the audio add-on with the ebook.

When I am listening to the audio book, I follow along in the ebook or paper book so that I can highlight relevant passages, or make notes. If I happen to be doing something else like walking, exercising, driving, or doing chores, I try to remember the places where I want to highlight or note, and then come back to them in the ebook or paper editions when I have the chance. This isn’t ideal, so I am interested in ways that audio books can be more interactive in terms of highlights and notes. Maybe a voice-activated system can control this better, e.g. “Highlight that last paragraph and add note to highlight: See also xyzzy,”

3. Ebooks

If an audio book edition is not available (increasingly rare these days for newer books, and getting rarer even for older books), then I’ll resort to an ebook edition. I’ll often resort to the ebook edition even if a paper edition is available out of practical concerns for cost and space. (Ebooks are usually, but not always, less expensive than their paper counterparts.)

It is easier to pull notes and highlights from ebooks, but even there, the system of highlighting and taking notes still feels clunky to me. I like scribbling in the margins, arguing with the author there, or noting something that made me laugh. I like making my own index of my notes in on the blank pages at the front of the paper editions–something I can’t do with an ebook because there are no blank front pages. My use of ebooks here is entirely practical.

4. Paper books

These days, paper books are a kind collector’s item for me. With limited shelf space in my office, and with a kind of collection of books established, I am picky about what I add to the collection. It needs to be worthy. Most often, I will buy new hard cover editions of books from authors I admire in order to add them to an existing collection of their books. Also, rare used books fall into this category. Or any used book that catches my eye in a book shop. Since I don’t get to book shops frequently, and I try only to buy books outside the chain book shops, adding these books doesn’t happen often. I will order paper books from Amazon. But I also order special editions of books I like. For instance, many of the beautiful editions of Stephen King books I own come from Cemetery Dance publications. They make works of art.

The problem with paper is more than one of space, it is one of time. There is no way I could read as much as I do with paper books alone, not while I still hold a full time job, am helping to raise three kids, writing here every day, and doing everything else I have to do. It just wouldn’t be possible. And so, as much as paper books are my ideal form for reading, from a practical standpoint, they don’t align as well with my goal of reading as much as I possibly can in the time I have available.


Do you have a favorite format you like for reading? If so, I’d love to hear about what it is and why in the comments.

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  1. Given that the underlying text is the same, I use the term “reading” interchangeably for paper, audio and ebooks.

Why Can’t Your FitBit or Apple Watch Pause Your Audio Book When You Fall Asleep?

Kelly is reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir for her book club. Actually, she is listening to the audio book version, narrated by Ray Porter, who does a very good job. The problem is, she says, she keeps falling asleep when she listens to it, and then has to go back and figure out what she last remembered hearing. I suspect this is a common problem, although it is not one from which I suffer. I do however, have a solution to offer that I am rather surprised has not already been tackled.

Lot of people use wearables these days. For a long time, I used a FitBit. And it seems to me that many people I know have Apple Watches on their wrists. (What would Douglas Adams have to say about our modern-day descendant of the digital watch?) Now, in addition to given us Jetson-like capabilities on wrists, these wearables do things that the Jetson’s never imagined. They can track how far we walk, how many calories we burn, our heart rates, pulses, and many other things. One of the things I found useful about my FitBit was its ability to track my sleep.

It seems to me that if my FitBit could tell me, based on a variety of biometrics, more or less when I fell asleep, then it should be able to use that same technology as a trigger to pause what I am listening to when it detects that I have fallen asleep. Imagine, you are listening to your audio book (or podcast, or music) and you begin to dose. The minute your Apple Watch detects that you are asleep, it pauses what you are listening to. It then uses its data to figure our how many seconds (or minutes) it needs to rollback whatever you were listening to so that when you awaken, you’ll be right where you left off.

This would be a useful integration feature for people who tend to fall asleep listening to books.

I could also imagine this integrating with devices like Apple TV, or other streaming services so that if your device detects you’ve fallen asleep during the latest episode of The Mandalorian, it will pause the show where you were last conscious of it, so that when you wake up, you can continue without skipping a beat.

I’m surprised that such a capability does not yet exist. Or perhaps it does and I’m just not aware of it. Of course, introducing a feature like this has its problems. I remember, for instance, that sitting still for a long time sometimes fooled my FitBit into thinking I was asleep. It would be annoying to be engrossed in listening to a book and have it suddenly pause because my wearable mistook my stillness for sleep. But these are solvable problems.

I suspect that a large number of tired, overworked, cooped up listeners would love a feature that automatically pauses their media when their wearable detects that they’ve fallen asleep. If nothing else, it would certainly help to improve the quality of book club discussions, what with people actually having listened to the entire book instead of sleeping through it.

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My Favorite Audio Book Narrators

One of the great things about audio books is the added dimension the narrator brings to the book. I find this is true for both fiction and non-fiction, but it is especially true for fiction. When I started listening to audio books back in 2013, I didn’t always pay attention to the names of the narrators, but I quickly learned to do this, in the same way that I learned to read the bylines in newspaper articles, or look for who wrote episodes of television shows I’ve enjoyed.

The very first audio book narrator I listened to back in 2013 was Lindsey Crouse, who narrated the first two audio books I listened to, Misery and Gerald’s Game both by Stephen King. In the years since, I’ve listened to more than 500 audio books. Here then, are some of my favorite audio book narrators.

Fiction

  • Craig Wasson: Wasson narrated Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’d read the novel once before I listened to the audio book version. Craig Wasson’s narration helped make that novel one of my all-time favorites. His performance was so good that it has an unexpected negative result: I can’t listen to other performance by Craig Wasson. Usually, when I find a narrator I like, I will look for more books they’ve narrated. I’ve discovered a lot of books in this manner. But Wasson became Jake Epping to me, and I can’t imagine him in any other role.
  • George Guidall: Guidall’s voice took some getting used to for me. The first thing I listened to him narrate was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. But where George Guidall really captured my heart was when I heard him narrating the Walt Longmire books by Craig Johnson. These books are all told in first person and like Wasson, George Guidall has become Walt Longmire in my mind, even more than Robert Taylor, who portrayed Longmire in the television series. Strangely, I can listen to Guidall narrate other books, and I look forward to those narrations as well.
  • Will Patton: Will Patton has narrated many books that I’ve listened to but the one that stands out most in my mind is his performance narrating Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. He does an incredible job with that book, making it, my mind, a better book in the audio edition than it is in the print edition alone.

Nonfiction

  • Malcolmn Hilgartner: I discovered Hilgartner through his narration of E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, one of my favorite collections of essays. I know what E. B. White sounds like, of course, and Hilgartner sounds nothing like him, but his style of narration makes me believe that White is talking to me when I listen to him. He’s also done narrations of a biography of Ty Cobb and Bob Hope that I enjoyed.
  • Grover Gardner: Gardner’s voice took me some getting used to. But he narrated at least half of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization books, and those are among my favorite histories, even though they are somewhat dated now. He is a reliable narrator that I’ve grown used to and versatile in both fiction (The Stand) and nonfiction alike. He narrated all of Robert A. Caro’s volumes on Lyndon Johnson so far.
  • Simon Winchester: Winchester narrates his own books, but I sometimes wish he narrated others as well. His is a voice I could listen to for just about anything.

Author narrators

At last, here is a list of some authors who also narrate their own books. No every writer is a good narrator, but these are a few that have really caught my attention and blown me away with their performances:

  • Harlan Ellison (the first person I ever heard give a “dramatic” reading)
  • John Le Carré (another writer who could have narrated other people’s books to great effect)
  • Bruce Springsteen (hid understated narration of his memoir was pitch perfect)
  • Simon Winchester (mentioned above)
  • Mary Robinette Kowal (she gave a marvelous performance of her novel The Calculating Stars)
  • Carl Reiner (because I love how he sounds like he is casually chatting with me)

Looking over this list, I note that it is alarmingly void of women. Mary is the only one. I took a second look at the list of audio books I’ve read and it turns out that while many are written by women, they are not as often narrated by women. Take Doris Kearns Goodwin, for example. I really enjoy her books, especially books like No Ordinary Time and The Bully Pulpit, the former of which was narrated by Nelson Runger, and the latter by Edward Hermann, both men.

When I occasionally browse for books on Audible, in addition to searching for writers I enjoy, I also search for narrators that I enjoy, hoping to discover new things that I might have missed. This above list are the people I most often search for when it comes to narrations.

1,000 Audio Books

On Saturday, I obtained my 1,000th audio book from Audible. It was Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe. On the one hand, for someone who once wrote here that audio books were not his thing, this is pretty remarkable. On the other hand, as a bibliophile, this is just an example of catching up.

I picked up my first audio book on February 12, 2013 so it took me about 8 years and 1 month to manage to collect 1,000 of them. I did a little math. There are 2,951 days between the day I acquired my first audio book and yesterday when I got my most recent one. That means I’ve added one audio book to my collection about every 3 days or so over the course of the last 8 years.

I’ve got a little over 1,000 books on the bookshelves in my office, and about 500 e-books in my Kindle library. That means I now have almost as many audio books as I have physical books on my book shelves.

Keep in mind that I haven’t yet read 1,000 of them. Many of them I pick up during Audible sales and when they have special deals, knowing that I won’t read them now but will get to them eventually. I’d estimate that I’ve read about 60% of what I have in my library.

Audio books have undeniably helped me read more than I might otherwise have had time to read from the printed page alone. The chart below, which I maintain in a notebook along with the list of all of the books I’ve read illustrates this pretty well. The dotted line down the page represents the time at which I began listening to audio books. You can see how the slopes of the other lines change after crossing that boundary. Of course, not every book I’ve read since has been an audio book, but the majority have.

Handwritten charts of my reading since 1996
Books per year and cumulative book count

These days, especially for nonfiction, I often get the e-book along with the audio book. This allows me to keep notes and highlights as I read. When I am not engaged in another activity, I’ll follow along in the e-book, marking passages and making notes, which eventually get transferred into Obsidian.

Today I’ll finish one audio book–The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. I keep the audio books that I want to listen to next downloaded on my phone just in case I find myself somewhere with no Internet access. There are currently 7 downloaded books, not counting The Code Breaker. They are:

  • The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman
  • A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman
  • The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
  • The Unreasonable Virtual of Fly Fishing by Mark Kurlansky
  • The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
  • Roughing It by Mark Twain
  • The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

Here’s to the next thousand!

A Funny Thing About Jim Boulton’s Ball Four Audiobook

I am currently reading Jim Boulton’s 1970 baseball smash, Ball Four. I’m listening to the audio book. So far, it’s great. But there is something particularly funny about it that makes it even better.

Most audio books these days use professional voice actors or narrators to read the book. Occasionally, the author will read their own book, but with few exceptions (Neil Gaiman or Mary Robinette Kowal, for instance), authors aren’t always the best choice as readers.

Jim Boulton reads his own book, Ball Four. He is not a bad reader. In the context of the book, he’s actually pretty good, because it’s him telling stories about his days playing baseball. But for nonfiction books, voice actors typically play it straight. The funny thing about Boulton’s narration of Ball Four is that he sometimes cracks himself up with what he’s written. So he’s reading his book, gets to a funny part, starts laughing, and has to pause, or re-read a sentence after the laughing has stopped.

I love it! It comes across as so genuine that you can’t not laugh yourself. The genuine emotion that his impromptu laughter brings to the reading makes it that much better.

My Difficulty with Speed Reading and an Unlikely Solution in Audio Books

When I get going, I probably cruise along at an average reading speed. I’ve never tried to measure my reading speed in any scientific way (which, I suppose, is unusual since I measure just about everything else about myself). I read a lot and it might seem to those looking in from outside that I read quickly, but that is an illusion caused mostly by the fact that reading is the water that fills in the jar of pebbles that makes up my day. Reading is my default mode. Put another way: when I am not otherwise occupied, I am reading.

But the actual speed at which I read is mostly constant with one quirky exception: my reading picks up speed as I approach the exciting conclusion of whatever book I happen to be reading.

Maybe this happens to you and maybe it doesn’t, but my own personal brand of speed reading is a kind of steady increase in pace as the excitement picks up at the conclusion of a book, until it seems as if I am simply zipping past each page barely seeing the words. I finish the way a sprinter finishes a race, out of breath and with the last push one big blur.

This alone convinces me that speed-reading techniques would be completely lost on me. The thing is, while I race through the end of the book, I do so by gestalt, and not be that calm, leisurely absorption of each word on the page. And that is a problem, because the ending of books are often much more of a blur to me than the 90% of narrative that comes before. I wish that I could maintain the same pace that I maintain through the rest of the book, but the excitement rushes me along. I turn pages, skimming, desperate to know what happens next. In doing so, I sacrifice the details and the beauty of language in an effort to swallow the plot whole.

I’ve lived with this problem my entire life, as far as I can recall, and I’ve never discovered an adequate solution–until I began listening to audio books a few weeks ago.

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More Than Halfway Through the Misery Audiobook

I am now more than halfway through my first complete1 audio book, Stephen King’s Misery. And having now listened to more than 7 hours of the book, here are few thoughts:

  • This is one really good book. I had no idea! I seem to recall seeing bits and pieces of the movie once, a long time ago, but the book is so much better, so much richer. It is just fantastic so far.
  • I love the metafictional aspects of the book. I love the work within the work (Misery’s Return) but even more, I love the multiple levels of recursion that are taking place. I’ve got to imagine that this was a fun book for King to write.
  • The book is narrated by Lindsay Krouse and so far, if I had my way, I’d have her narrate every future audio book I read. She is outstanding.

Now for a few of the downsides I’ve discovered:

  • I can’t really multitask while listening to the book–not beyond walking or working out on the elliptical machine. And even then, if I don’t focus on the story and let my mind wander, I soon discover that I’ve missed something and have to go back.
  • It’s not as easy for me to pick up where I left off. When reading a book, it’s easy to open to where you left off and continue, but I find I tend to have to back up a little when listening to the audio book in order to more easily slip into the narration.
  • I think Lindsay Krouse is a fantastic narrator. She has the perfect voice for listening (as far as I am concerned) and the trouble with that is the chances are very good she won’t be narrating the next audio book I listen to. And I suspect that whoever does narrate it simply won’t be as satisfying to my ears.

I have not yet decided what I’m going to listen to next. I do enjoy working out listening to the book. I enjoy my morning walks listening to the book, too. I take a quick 1 mile walk every morning at 10am to get some air. The last two mornings have been bitterly cold and windy. I would have ordinarily cut my walk short both days, but I pressed on mainly because I was so absorbed by the story and Lindsay Krouse’s voice, and I wanted to keep listening, at least for a little while.

  1. My first attempt at an audio book was with Stephen King’s Gunslinger, but I couldn’t get through it.

On audio books

Every once in a while, when I reflect on how small a dent I make in my stack of reading, I think about audio books. I have friends who swear by them. For some of them, it seems, it is the only way they get their fix. There is a great deal of advantage to audio books: you can listen do them while performing other activities, like commuting to work, chores around the house, working out, taking a walk. Indeed, you can make use of those times when reading a book is impractical.

But though I’ve tried on one or two occasions, I cannot bring myself to listen to audio books, particularly fiction in audio book form. There are several reasons for this:

  1. The voice bothers me. I am so used to my own internal voice, and the voices I make up in my head for various characters, that I can’t bear the voice of someone else reading to me. I’ve tried. Even when it is someone whose books I greatly admire, like Isaac Asimov, I’m not able to disappear into the story the way I can when I’m reading from the page.
  2. I cannot divide my attention to make listening and doing something else worthwhile. I will either focus on the story (if I can get past that alien voice in my head) or I will focus on the tasks that I am performing while listening to the story. I can’t do both. This is true for music, too, by the way. If I listen to music while I work, for instance, I will eventually discover that I never heard the music because I was so focused on my work.
  3. Reading aloud tends to be too slow for me. I am by no means a speed-reader, but I do read somewhat faster than the pace of reading aloud. It is just too slow for me and I find myself growing impatient.
  4. For me, reading is an active thing, and finding that groove where the words start to fade away and the scenes flow smoothly through my head is a kind of heaven that I haven’t been able to achieve listening to audio books. To me, audio books come across as performances and I’m not looking to listen to a performance.

That is not to say I have not delighted in audio performances–readings with expression–that were wonderful. I’ve written about my experiences seeing and listening to Harlan Ellison read aloud. Such performances spoil me because I’ve never heard anyone quite as good. But then, those readings really are performances as opposed to someone simply reading a book and perhaps adding a little color through the use of their voice.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because it was not more than a few years ago that I had a similar attitude toward e-book. I could never read an e-book, I thought, because I delighted too much in the feel of the printed page. Well, I learned pretty quickly that, at least for me reading an e-book feels no different than reading off the printed page. And so I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t giving audio books a fair shake for similar reasons.

But after careful consideration, and especially for the reasons I list about, I’ve accepted the fact that audio books are not for me.