Do some books make better listens than reads?

My journey to embrace audiobooks has been a rousing success so far this year. Granted, we’re not quite three months in, but I’m hopeful.

I’ve been thinking about the degree to which this may be a case of necessity being the mother of invention: My committed desire to really, really find an audiobook I could stick with created the favorable conditions for that to happen.

This is the kind of power-of-positive-thinking* scenario self-help authors like to go on about (have I mentioned I’m reading You are a Badass?). Anyway, it does work from time to time. I finished Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone last month, have only one chapter left in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and am one third of the way through Station Eleven. Which is not, as you may have noticed, a Harry Potter book.

In response to last month’s call for audiobook recommendations, my friend Gabi suggested Station Eleven. The title caught my eye when it first came out but somehow never made it to the top of my list. As it happened, I had to do hours upon hours of driving for work last week. A prime opportunity to experiment with audiobooks! So I downloaded Station Eleven from my library.

I heard it described as a post-apocalyptic novel, which it is, partly. The narrative moves back and forth between before and after a pandemic that kills off over 99 percent of the world’s population. The threads connecting the two stories include an actor called Arthur Leander who dies in the first chapter while performing King Lear, a former paparazzo and aspiring paramedic who performs CPR on Arthur, and a young actress to whom Arthur gifts a series of comic books penned by his first wife, Miranda.

As you may have deduced, it’s a twisty story. It reminds me of being in a maze. We take a right turn here, maybe another one there, then a left turn or two, maybe go straight for a while. We don’t quite know what each route will reveal or how much closer it’s bringing us to center. But we keep at it.

Do some books make better listens than reads?I’m enjoying listening to this story much more than I would have thought given the meandering nature of the plot. From the way I’d heard the book described, I wouldn’t have expected it to be so much about time, memory, nostalgia, loss, art, meaning, community – issues that preoccupy me. (This is because I hadn’t yet read this excellent review by Justine Jordan in The Guardian.)

I decided to download the text version since it was also available at my library. I thought it might be useful for filling in the blanks when I fade out for a minute and miss something. But I’m finding I much prefer listening to this story than reading it. It might be the narrator or that I’ve gotten used to listening and want consistency. I’m not sure, really. But it’s raised questions:

For those of you who listen to audiobooks regularly, are there some book you’ve found more enjoyable to listen to than read and vice versa, and if so, which ones and why?

* Apparently, I’m conducting an experiment to see how many adages I can incorporate into a single piece of writing.

6 Replies to “Do some books make better listens than reads?”

  1. This is a great question. I find it hard to get into audiobooks – but it might just be that I’ve never really tried. I prefer the visual aspect and really just getting lost in pages and words. Plus, I don’t know if I could do something like drive (well, okay, I CAN’T drive, hence the reason I never got a license) and pay attention to a story at the same time. But I am grateful that audiobooks exist – not just because some do seem like they’re awesome (including the ones you’ve described) but because they allow so many people who have challenges like visual disabilities, reading difficulties, etc, access to wonderful stories.

    1. I hear you, Alysa! It took me a long time to figure out how to enjoy audiobooks. Listening while driving is something I did in grad school when I had a long commute to work. I listened to The Odyssey on my drive! Then again, I had to make the driving time count since I had so much reading to do (which brings me back to “necessity is the mother of invention”…).

      I don’t know why it feels so decadent, for me, to listen to as opposed to read a book, but I feel like I’m getting better at listening in the process, which is kind of neat. I still prefer the experience of reading, with my book or my Nook, which feels weirdly like a companion in the process. Several friends have given me recommendations that I’m looking forward to trying when I finish Station Eleven: On Beauty, Moby-Dick, 1Q84 (which I read and loved), and As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride.”

      1. I feel like those recommendations show me what a visual person I am. I feel like “Moby Dick” would be too fleeting if just read (but then again, how many times have I been moved at poetry readings, plays, great dialogue in film, etc?), and 1Q84 would be hard for me to follow just listening to it. But on the other hand, the last book you mention – which has now been added to my reading list (in whatever format) doesn’t make me flinch to think of listening to it. And I do listen to podcasts and such, so maybe it’s just the type of book – maybe light nonfiction is okay for me?

        Also, I love the idea of listening to “The Odyssey” while driving – a mini-odyssey of one’s own.

        1. I think that’s it exactly – playing around with different types of books and seeing what works and if it works. 🙂

  2. Your description of Station Eleven is spot on! I have a VERY long list of novels I’ve read in print that I want to reread by listening to the audiobook. A great narrator can add a lot to an already amazing story. I guess this adds one more!

    But I do agree, some novels are just better in audio version. I know I never would have finished Wuthering Heights otherwise!

    1. I definitely agree – The narrator is key! I’ve just borrowed the audiobook of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena from my library and am hoping it’s a win. I love having a book to listen to when I’m walking or driving. 🙂

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