Tag: audiobooks

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.

Did you enjoy this post?
If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for reading!

Follow Jamie Todd Rubin on WordPress.com

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

Audible Deals

Every now and then Audible has these deals on audio books. I always look forward to these as there is usually at least one good find in them. Often these are lucky finds, as more often than not, the theme is only tangentially interesting to me.

Today, however, I discovered something remarkable. Audible came out with a “True Stories Sale” with the books on the list offered at $6 each. But it wasn’t the price that I find remarkable. It was the books on the list. It was like walking into a bookstore in which the books were selected with me in mind.

Ironically, I already owned many of the audio books. Indeed, after getting halfway through the 700 or so books on sale, I found that I already owned 32 of them! I have never encountered one of these sales where I owned so many of the books on the list.

Of course, I combed through the list to see if there was anything interesting that I didn’t own, and managed to find several books that I can pick up for $6 a pop (a bargain when you consider a credit typically costs about $11). Among those books that piqued my interest are:

  • Easy Company Soldier: The Legendary Battles of a Sergeant from WW IIs Band of Brothers by Don Malarkey and Bob Welch
  • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
  • Significant Figures: The Lives and Works of Great Mathematicians by Ian Stewart
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman
  • Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt

This is one Audible deal that really impressed me.

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!

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.

1,000 Hours of Audiobooks in 2019

Given all of the reading that I keep track of, one thing I haven’t managed to track is how many hours of audiobooks I actually listen to in a given year. The Audible app shows only the last 5 months worth of listening metrics, and several days ago, I found myself wondering how much it might be. Today, I found out, thanks to an email from Audible. It turns out that through yesterday, I’ve listened to 936 hours of audiobooks this year.

This turns out to be about 2-1/2 hours each day on average. But the number is a bit understated for a few reasons. First, given that it has to be through yesterday, it doesn’t count today or tomorrow, which, based on the last several days, will add another 10 hours to that figure. So we have 946 hours.

Then, too, it has been a long time since I have listened to any book at normal speed. Indeed, listening to a book a normal speed makes the narrator sound drugged. I typically listen at 1.5x normal speed, with some books (depending on the narrator) at 1.75x normal speed. Call it an average of 1.6x for the year. In that case, in my 946 hours of audiobook listening this year, I’ve listened to 1,514 hours worth of audiobooks. That’s an average of 4.1 hours/day compressed down to 2-1/2 hours a day thanks to the faster listening speed.

I am currently reading (listening to) Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan. I expect to finish this book tomorrow, and that will give me 114 books read this year. Of those, the vast majority, 105, are audiobooks.

I’m often chagrined thinking about how much more I might have read if I’d embraced audiobooks sooner. I friend of mine has been using Audible since the late 1990s, while I only got started with Audible in 2013. Indeed, I am on the record claiming I could never listen to an audiobook–which just goes to illustrate the folly of being closed-minded.

Some of the time I spent listening to books this year did not go into completing a book. I give up on quite a few books each year, and if I give up on a book, it doesn’t make it to my list of books I’ve read. I’ve never kept track of the books I give up on so I don’t know how many or how often it happens. I’m considering keeping track in 2020.

I’ll have more to say on the books I read this year later in the week, after the year is over. I plan on posting a list of my 12 favorite books of the year, as well as a separate post on the 10 best books I read this decade. Stay-tuned.