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Question of the Month: Audio Books

by Susan Henderson on April 2, 2012

Do you listen to audio books? I’d love to hear why or why not.

My kids were into audio books when they were young. We’d listen to them on long car rides, and my youngest liked to fall asleep to the Harry Potter CDs. In fact, he listened to that series so many times, he developed a British accent!

I’m a visual person, for the most part. I like to see the words, re-read my favorite lines, dog-ear pages, scribble in the margins. But it’s tricky when your work day is reading, writing, editing, and then the thing you like to do to relax is reading, writing, editing. That’s a lot of eye strain. Sometimes, at the end of a long work day, I wanted so badly to read for pleasure but it gave me a headache and my eyes couldn’t focus. That’s when I first started dabbling in audio books, mostly the classics I could get for free.

Later, I found another reason to choose audio books over paper books: sometimes other people simply read a book better than I do. Seamus Heaney reading BEOWULF with his driving pace (verses my stumbling over the Old English) shows off the genius of the poem’s rhythm; if read right, you can actually hear the rage, the marching, the testosterone. Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA is also much better as an audio book because, unlike me, the paid reader knows how to pronounce those Russian names. And think of all you can do while you listen to a book: laundry, dishes, a long drive, a hike in the woods.

UP FROM THE BLUE is coming out as an audio book this month. (April 10th!) I’m  looking forward to getting a copy of it because I haven’t actually read it yet. Over the six years it took me to write and edit it, I tended to break it up into problem-sections and couldn’t read without a red pen in hand, ready to tweak a sentence. When it was published, I held and admired it, but that was all. I think, though, that it would be nice to hear it as someone else might read it, without the pauses for self-criticism and the instinct to stop and correct it some more.

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I went on two business trips last month and they were both fabulous in very different ways.

The first was to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I was so excited about this one because my good friend, Darlin’ Neal, is a professor there (and author of this gorgeous book), and I couldn’t wait to spend time with her. I was told my itinerary would include a luncheon with students, a reading in a large lecture hall, and then dinner with the staff of the school’s literary magazine. The day before I left for my trip, I was packing and emailing Darlin’ about details when she forwarded me some specifics about the luncheon. In the note was a suggestion to keep my speech under 30 minutes. My what??! To me, luncheon has always meant eating, but in this forwarded note I saw that I was a part of something called “the distinguished speakers” series, the previous speakers including astronauts, film directors, CEOs, and the president of Poland. I quickly threw whatever into the suitcase (i.e., no pajamas or walking shoes) and got to work on that speech, which I think went okay. The students at UCF were smart, vibrant, focused, funny, and asked the best questions.

Later, a group of us went out for Vietnamese food, which was all kinds of fun because the formal stuff was over by then and I could just relax and play. The next day, we took Darlin’s dog on a four-mile walk, a really great time before I was due back at the airport. A little rushed, but that is my life lately. And now I’ve got a plaque saying “distinguished speaker” that Mr. H finds as funny as the plaque I got at a former job calling me “patient” and a “good listener.”

My second trip was to Portland, Maine, where I was on a panel with Jessica Keener and Leora Skolkin-Smith for a book festival sponsored by Maine Reads. A weekend of amazing talks and revelations! Many thanks to Sarah Cecil, Karen Baldacci, Judy Gelman, Vicki Levy Krupp, Alma Katsu, my kick-ass panel mates, and so many fine and fascinating book lovers who made it a great experience! I stayed an extra night to finish judging a contest at Fictionaut and then drove home with a broken GPS system, which required me to do some old fashioned navigating (with frequent calls home to troubleshoot when I veered off course). Great time but good to be home with my family and pets and writing again.

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Let me close with some thank you’s to LaLaLovely, the Good Book Fairy, WLBZ, Bethany Duvall, Caffeinated College Kid, Shannon’s Book Bag, Central Kentucky News, Bookseller RecommendsPeace Love Lungs, Talking with TimBieb Blog Vlissingen, and Camille Kimball.

In 2006, when I still ran my blog off of the Publisher’s Marketplace site, I posted some thoughts about the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey fallout. I used to have to erase that blog every three posts to clear space for new ones, so I had no permanent record of the things I talked about then. But recently, my blog was re-posted, in light of the Mike Daisey/This American Life fallout, along with a fascinating debate about truth and memoir. Here is my original post, which Camille had saved from my blog for the past six years. And here is her response. I think it’s a fascinating discussion and I’m not entirely sure where I stand on it all. If you have thoughts about the debate, one way or the other, I’m sure Camille would appreciate you posting comments on her site.

And that’s it. Have a great April, everyone!

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Hillary Casavant April 2, 2012 at 2:34 am

Thank you again for visiting the University of Central Florida! It was such a pleasure meeting you. We just sent this year’s edition of our lit magazine, Cypress Dome, to the printer. We’re very excited for it.

I used to listen to audiobooks quite a bit in middle school. I would fall asleep listening to Meg Cabot’s novels late at night. I must have listened to The Princess Diaries over a hundred times. I stopped listening to books on tape in high school, but it’s something I miss. It’s a good way to unwind, and usually much better than the radio.

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Hillary, It was so great to meet you and hang out after the reading! Now I’m going to always associate you with The Princess Diaries… that’s the cutest image!

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Nathalie (@spacedlaw) April 2, 2012 at 10:39 am

I don’t. I have problems concentrating enough to really listen to something as big as a story (in particular without visual aid: a real story teller would be different).
I would start to fret about the wasted time doing nothing but listening.
Weirdly enough, I don’t have such qualms when I am reading, but also applies to music: I can only properly listen to a long piece if I am at a concert or – even better – at the opera.
I think this comes fromt he fact that the level of attention neede is high but does not engage the whole of the mind/body.

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Nathalie, I have the same problem. It’s much harder for me to concentrate on the audio than if I see the words. I’m glad there’s another opera lover here!

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Laura Kay April 2, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I’m actually listening to my first audiobook. I’ve won a couple and they were beginning to collect dust. I thought I’d throw them in the van and listen to them as I chased around town without the kids. Even though it’s a rarity for me not to have them in the car, lol. Well, I’m still listening to the first one and it’s taken a lot of time, but I’m loving it. I’m surprised how much I enjoy it. Once I’m done I’m going to start loading books onto my iphone and listen to them as I job. Me time!

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 12:20 pm

That’s actually a great point for publishers and publicists… sometimes the best way to get people to try new things is to give them away for free! I do love the fact that I can listen while I do things, or just close my eyes, but it still doesn’t quite feel relaxing. I have to concentrate in a totally different way when I listen, and I have to keep reminding myself not to wander off in my head.

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Billy Bones April 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Mr. Lincoln loves audiobooks. He listens to them commuting to and from work, and saves real reading for evenings. That way he can enjoy two books at a time. He also appreciates the way the words of each audiobook roll around in his head all day long. This doesn’t happen quite so much with print.

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm

This just makes me smile. And good point, that you can juggle more books when you have one in the car and one by the bed.

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Claire Cameron April 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I just started listening to audio books as a way to occupy kids in the car. I agree that it all hangs on the reader. Winnie the Pooh as told by Stephen Fry is a must.

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm
billie hinton April 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm

I never have really explored audiobooks for my own self, but enjoyed listening to the audiobooks we listened to in the car when my children were young. We loved the BBC version of the unabridged Winnie The Pooh. I think we wore those cassettes completely out. They also loved Odds Bodkin and a few others. When the Harry Potter books came out I wore my voice out reading to them – they would never let me stop once we got going! So we got the audiobooks for each of those so I could listen too.

I am so visual and love the ability to re-read passages as I go – so I’m not sure I’ll ever get into novels as audiobooks. But this year I’m listening to Clarissa Pinkola-Estes Dangerous Old Woman – usually in the mornings as I fold a load of laundry – and I’m really enjoying her voice and the stories she tells.

Congratulations on your distinguished speaker status!! When you add that to being patient and a good listener you have rounded out a wonderful circle. 🙂

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm

We used to listen to the BBC version of Winnie the Pooh (and Beatrix Potter), too. Such great memories. I’m thinking of stealing your idea of listening to books while I do laundry to see if that helps the laundry get done. I always seem to give up part way.

And thank you. Like I said, my husband find it all pretty hysterical. No one in their right mind has ever called me patient!

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Jeff Sinclair April 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Good morning Mrs. Henderson,

I adore audio books. I think my love for them goes back to vinyl records and cassette tape readings of fairy tales and Star Wars episodes. They were so dramatic with the sound effects and such (and cheesy music – I love it all). Then about five years ago I got back into them in earnest. I went out and just bought audio versions of all my favorites, mostly classics. I love them because not only is there the convenience factor, it adds a different element. In some instances you feel like you’re hearing the story as the author meant for it to be heard (such as in Heaney’s Beowulf as you mentioned). Writers are told to read their stuff aloud to pinpoint mistakes easier. It’s true that an actual voice adds a level of depth that the voice in your head cannot. Oh, and audio books make it easier to ‘read’ the stacks upon stacks of novels a Lit major gets shouldered with. On that level, they’ve been a saving grace for me.

Looking forward to yours. 🙂

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Good morning, Mr. Sinclair! 🙂 My kids love those cheesy sound effects, too. The BBC productions are famous for them! Your description here makes me want to go out and get a classic… maybe something I have on my shelf but for whatever reason has felt too intimidating to start.

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Megan Fletcher April 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I still listen to audio books on my long commute over to UCF (better than listening to the radio). One of my favorites is ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ narrated by David Kipen, featuring Ruby Dee. They really bring Tea Cake and Janie to life… one of the best parts it when Nanny is telling Janie that she is a woman and will be a wife… and Janie says “No, Nanny, …no Ma’am, what I know about a husband”…. lol. Listen to it if you get the chance because I’ve read TEWWG twice and I’ve listened the audio book over and over, sometimes I just skip to my favorite parts. It really transforms this book. I will definitely get UFTB when it comes out. Now I’ll have a new commute book:)

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Susan Henderson April 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I love Zora Neale Hurston so so much, and I re-read that book every few years. Maybe next time I’ll listen to it. So great to meet you in Florida!

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Amy Sue Nathan April 2, 2012 at 8:24 pm

I love audio books. I am not a big music listener (I know, I know…) so I work out to audio books. I clean and fold laundry to audio books. I drive 4 hours to see my son at Indiana University and listen to audio books. I drive around my little suburb and sit in parking lots longer than I should, listening to audio books.

I prefer to read – but when I can’t (driving and reading is not usually recommended) I turn to an audio version.

Congrats on your book going vocal, Susan. I read it when it first came out — and couldn’t put it down. I bet there will be many listeners thwarting other duties once they click play. 🙂

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Susan Henderson April 3, 2012 at 1:01 am

I’m always amazed at people who read books (or listen to them) while they work out at the gym. I couldn’t do it, but good for you for doing something for your body and mind at the same time.

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Jessica Keener April 2, 2012 at 10:35 pm

My husband is an avid audio book listener. Standing at the trolley, waiting in line at the grocery store? You can bet he’s plugged into a book. But, it was my son who introduced me to this lovely way of experiencing stories. We have many children’s books on tape from those early days, and when we traveled long ways to visit family, audio books rescued us every time. It was a joyful, interesting way for all three of us to be together. We listened for hours–on the highway.

So, an audio of your novel? This is great news. I loved Up From The Blue, and have already read it twice. It will be wonderful to dive into your story, again, in this different way. Hearing your gorgeous language aloud will be magical. I also loved spending this past weekend with you up in Maine at the book festival.

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Susan Henderson April 3, 2012 at 1:05 am

Yeah, I really love the bonding that happens when the whole family has an experience of reading/listening to the same book. We still read together as a family, but it goes slower now because we’re so seldom free on the same night. We’re still making it through Good Omens together.

So great to walk through Portland with you and Leora and taste fancy vinegars at that cooking store!

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Kimberly M. Wetherell April 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I only recently started listening to audiobooks, as in the past, the sound of the human voice spoken vs sung was a guaranteed cure for insomnia – especially when driving.

But I recently had a few long car rides and I was tiring of my music selection, so I started cautiously with Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”, read by her. I can’t even imagine reading it afterwards. As well as it’s written (and it is), having her vocal inflection made it even funnier and those five hours flew by. Then I listened to “The Help” and the four actresses were absolutely exquisite, making the audiobook far superior to the movie for me.

Lest you think that I got lucky with marvelous actors (which I thought I did), I recently listened to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” a few days ago on another long drive. The actress wasn’t nearly as good as the others I’d lucked into, but I still remained throughly engaged for the 13 hours it took to listen the book because Cheryl’s story was so compelling. But now I really want to read it, because I feel like I need to “hear” Cheryl’s voice (if that makes any sense) because I don’t feel like ‘she’ was there in the recording.

I guess what I’m saying is, in the future, I’m going to do a bit more homework when it comes to actors in my book selection. But I’m happy that I gave audiobooks another chance, so that long drives are now infinitely more tolerable.

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Kimberly M. Wetherell April 2, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Rereading my post, I didn’t proof, and I see that the start of the third paragraph makes no sense. To clarify: I did get lucky with good actresses in my first two audiobooks and only remained engaged by the third, due to the incredibly story being told, not by the performance of the reader.

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Susan Henderson April 3, 2012 at 1:08 am

Wild’s on my list, and everyone I know who’s read Bossypants has loved it. I know what you mean about the voice coming through easier when you read the book yourself. And we have some key lime pie eating to do as soon as we can all get free!

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Colin Matthew April 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm

I drive for long periods of time for work, so audiobooks are a fantastic way to pass the time. I tend more to listen to fantasy audiobooks than “literary” novels. Books like the Discworld or Wicked series I enjoy, but have a hard time sitting down and reading due to all the weirdly pronounced words.

I also listen to podcasts, but good book related ones are hard to find.

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Susan Henderson April 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm

My whole family is nuts for the Discworld series. Some great book-related podcasts are Books on the Nightstand (http://booksonthenightstand.com/) and Other People (http://otherpeoplepod.com/).

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Bethany DuVall April 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Congratulations on the audio publication! A couple of my students chose to read and review Up from the Blue for an assignment after hearing your UCF reading. They enjoyed it quite a lot!

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Susan Henderson April 4, 2012 at 1:01 am

That’s so great to hear! Let me know when it’s out so I can drive some traffic that way.

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Darlin' Neal April 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Sue,

So great to see this and see some of my wonderful students chiming in. It was so lovely to see you and spend time, a visit I will remember and cherish.

Hugs,
Darlin’

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Susan Henderson April 6, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Truly loved the whole trip and how easy you made things for me, but especially loved the last day, just with you and Catfish. xo

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Susan Henderson April 10, 2012 at 11:43 am

UP FROM THE BLUE is available on audio today!

You can get it on iTunes and Audible.com http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B007RFQ1WM&qid=1334056741&sr=1-1

It’s also available at these bookstores, though all the links seem to be broken: http://www.harpercollins.com/book/buy.aspx?isbn13=9780062208675

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Despina Yeargin April 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Susan, Congratulations on the audio of Up From the Blue!

While I haven’t read/listened to that many, I’ve enjoyed audio books in the car. If it’s a good book, the trip is always too short. I remember listening to ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ with Dewey (hubby) on a long–LONG–trip to a place 2 states away. We took the long way back home and even sat in the car in our driveway, just to finish the book! Don’t know that I could have read the same book and stayed with it.

I’ve also enjoyed ‘An Anthropologist On Mars’ on a 4-hr trip to Atlanta. Listening helped me to focus on my driving and to get more out of the book.

A recent example (from last year) is Mark Childress’ audio book, ‘Georgia Bottoms’. Dewey had torn a tendon in his left knee, he’d had surgery and we had several 1-hr trips to see the surgeon. Listening to the book kept our minds off the surgery and in a much happier state. While Dewey did not listen to the last chapter, he did predict the outcome and was entertained by a book that he might not normally have read.

I only listen to audio books in the car.

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Susan Henderson April 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm

What a wonderful description! I love that you sat in the driveway to finish the book! I like books in the car when I’m a passenger, but I find I can’t concentrate on the book and driving at the same time. But we’ve listened to everything from Peter Rabbit to the Greek myths to Orson Welles to David Sedaris with the whole family in the car. It definitely makes for a great trip, and I like that we all have something we’re doing together rather than each person wearing a set of headphones and living in their own world.

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Susan Henderson June 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Thanks to Owen King for pointing out this great article on audio books: http://therumpus.net/2012/06/happy-audio-book-month/

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