Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Do Audio Books Count?

Posted by Simcha 5:04 PM, under | 12 comments

A while back, a discussion took place on Books on the Nightstand about audio books and if listening to them really counts as having read the book, because the two experiences are so different. At the time of this discussion I really had no opinion on the matter because I had never listened to an audio book before. But now that I have, I can see that this is actually a really good question, especially since the audio book that I had enjoyed listening to so much was of a book that I did not particularly enjoy.

I had started reading Jim Butcher's Storm Front a number of times but I could never get past the first few chapters, despite my repeated efforts. Each time I read another rave review of the Dresden Files I would give Storm Front another try, in hopes of discovering what it was that everyone else found so appealing about it. Finally I gave up on the book and decided to try listening to the audio version instead, which I heard was really good. Much to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story by James Marsters' narration, whose interpretation of the world-weary Harry Dresden pulled me into the story far more effectively then the words on the pages. But after I finished listening to the audio book I was left wondering what my actual opinion on the book itself was. Did my enjoyment of listening to Storm Front mean that I liked the book or does it mean that I like James Marsters, in which case I should start watching Buffy instead?

Afterward, I tried listening to an audio book from Podiobooks, and I had the opposite experience. In this case, I could tell that the story was one that I would really enjoy if I were reading it but I was too distracted by the different voices the author kept doing for the characters, to enjoy listening to it. Had I been reading the book I would have imagined the main female character to be strong yet slightly bitter but the author's interpretation makes her sound like a whiny child. And so, in this case, a book that I'm sure I would have liked reading, I couldn't even bring myself to listen to for more then a few minutes.

My two experiences with audio books caused me to think back on that discussion on Books on the Nightstand, since I can now see how listening to a book really is a completely different experience then reading one. An audio book adds a whole other dimension to a reader's enjoyment of a book, making it more then just about the author's writing and story-telling skills, but also about the narrator's interpretation of the story and it's characters. So if someone listens to an audio book that they did not enjoy, can they rightfully say that they didn't enjoy the book? Perhaps it was the narrator reading that the listener didn't enjoy. And since so much of an audio book depends on the narrator, does listening to the audio version actually count as having read the book?

I don't think I have listened to enough audio books to understand how difficult it might be to separately judge the book from the audio narration. I think it's kind of like judging the performance of a play separately from the script. After listening to Storm Front I knew that my enjoyment of the audio book was due largely to the the wonderful narration, since my opinion of the story itself didn't change much from when I had attempted to read it, and so in this case I would consider myself to have "read" the book and to be able to judge it as if I read it. But I don't know if this would hold true to other audio books as well. I do intend though to find out, since I've discovered that listening to a book can be just as fun as reading one.

If you know of any particularly good audio books, I'd love to hear about them.


Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover was amazing. The narrator is awesome and there are even light-saber sounds, music, R2D2 squeals and everything. Pretty much like watching the movie, but way way better.

Some more good ones I've read are Starship Troopers, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and The Lord of the Rings narrated by Ingles (I forget the first name).

I had a commute last year, so I listened to about 11 books. Like I said in your last post, I think they count because I have an inner narrator anyway. I listened to Dune and it was a terrible narration, but such a good story, that I still loved it. Also listened to The Historian and although the narration was fine, it's just a crappy book in my opinion.

That got really long, sorry about that. :)

I've recently started listening to audiobooks and I would say that it counts as reading the book mostly because it is a substantial time commitment to listen to them.

I think different narrators do make a difference though. I haven't listened to enough of them to make a truly informed opinion though.

I have found that it is a great way to sample some authors that you may never get around to reading though.

I've never gotten into audio books actually - perhaps when I'm blind from reading I'll give them a try :)

Bryce, thanks for the recommendations. I can't imagine listening to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on audio, it would probably take months. Though I read them book already anyways. I don't think I could stand listening to bad narrator, it would completely ruin the story for me. Have you listened to any of George Martin or Steven Erikson's books? I had a hard time reading them so I thought maybe I would enjoy listening to them more.

John: I'm excited to try out some audio books of popular fantasy novels that I had a hard time reading, usually due to the heavy politics, and therefore never finished. I guess I want to have read these books without having to read them, and audio is the way to go. Have you listened to anything good that you could recommend?

Stephanie: Oh no, I hope you never get blind from reading! Audio books are great for road trips, long commutes or you can even listen to them while cooking or cleaning.

@Simcha - I haven't listened to GRRM or Erikson on audio, but I think that would be really difficult to follow the insane amount of characters via audiobook. At the same time, I was having a hard time following Dune and then I listened to the audiobook thinking "why not, if I get it I get it" and it worked out well.

Bryce: I hear what you are saying. For some reason I have a harder time remembering the names of the different characters when I listen to a book then when I read one so if these books have a huge cast of characters I can imagine myself losing track of whose who.

Simcha - especially since those books each have extensive appendices (Glossary, dramatis persona, etc.) to help you keep things in your head. :)

A really great audiobook was METAtropolis. The stories were good (if a bit preachy), but the production of the audiobook was TOP NOTCH, with actors from Battlestar Galactica and some other well known narrators. I highly recommend giving it a try if you want a real audiobook experience. :)

For those who haven't listened to a good audio book I must say you are missing an amazing experience. Listening to a good narrator "tell" you a story is one of the most pleasurable things one can do.

As for recommendations, any of Neil Gaiman's books read by him are a delight. His novels American Gods and Anansi Boys are read by others and they too are fantastic narrators.

If you are into British period mysteries, Agatha Christie's books, Why Ask Evans? and The 7 Dials Mystery, narrated by Emilia Fox, are wonderful.

The Barnes and Noble production of Dracula by Bram Stoker is particularly good.

I'm listening to China Mieville's book, The City & The City right now and the narrator for that is excellent.

Many of young adult author Richard Peck's books are humorously narrated. A few aren't the best, and I'm sorry I cannot remember which now, but most are great fun.

Orson Scott Card's books Ender's Game and the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, are narrated are read by a cast, I believe, and I've heard great things about both of them. And if you are looking to continue a foray into science fiction these are excellent books to add to your to read, or to listen to, list.

Carl, thanks for all the great recommendations. I've never read Dracula before but have recently become interested in doing so, but perhaps I'll try the audio book instead, if it's as good as you say.
I'm very excited by my new discovery of audio books. I was really surprised at how different an experience it is. Though I'm not convinced that hearing an audio book counts as having read the book because the narrator adds additional elements to the story-like another layer- that affects the listener differently then if they were reading it themselves. While I love the option of listening to the audio version of books that are not at the top of my To Read pile, if it's a book that I really want to read, I don't think I would choose to listen to the audio instead. I actually just ordered a copy of The City & The City, last week, and can't wait to read it. Perhaps we can compare notes :)

I completely agree with you that a narrator makes it a different experience. I still count it as having 'read' the book, in so far as much as I put it on my list of books as having been "read", but that isn't really your point, I don't think. Your point is that if you sit down and physically read a book that the experience is way different than having the book read to you. And you are right. By and large I don't care if I read or listen to a book first, except for when it comes to my favorite authors, and then I would much rather read the book for myself first before getting anyone else's interpretation, even the authors.

Again for example, Neil Gaiman. I pretty much own every book he has done on audio and I love listening to them, but would never do so as my very first experience with the story. How a good reader effects the feelings of a story is born out with my experience with Neil, as there are a few of his short stories that I thought were just "meh" when I read them, but loved after hearing him read them, putting the emphasis just so, and making the stories come alive in a way that my own reading did not.

Was my experience when I read them valid? Yes, of course. And I would have to say that I probably was right in my initial impression, but he makes them different when he reads them and adds a degree of pleasure even to those stories that I don't much care for.

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