In praise of audio books

Podcasts were my gateway drug into audio books. Some time around 2007, I started listening to more books than I read. Some of my first audio books were Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, beautifully read by George Guiddall. I often listened to those books while wandering around the Maltese countryside, so that place and those stories are inextricably linked in my memory.

I’m a big audio book booster. Like podcasts, they make exercise–walking, running, hiking, cycling–slightly less loathsome for me. I find myself advocating audio books to lots of friends and colleagues, but I seem to generate few converts. Is it the technical hurdle of downloading them to a mobile device? Or is it their ‘books on tape’ reputation, that they’re only suitable for senior citizens with poor eyesight?

I suspect that they’re not as well-understood as they could be. Here, in point form, is an introduction to audio books:

  • I’ve also used Audible. I like their subscription model, and in earlier days they definitely had the best selection (I haven’t done a comparison recently). They also sponsor a number of my favourite podcasts, and I want to reward that. My wife and I are  the platinum plan at the moment, which means two credits per month for $23. In my experience, nearly all books are one credit per book. The credits roll over up to a certain number. You can, however, put your account ‘on hold’ for a while, which means you stop paying but you retain your credits. I’ve done this a couple of times, and it’s a handy feature.
  • You’ll consume books at a slower rate because you have to listen to every word–speed readers need not apply. Books range from five hours (for The Great Gatsby) up to 40 or 50 hours (for a really long Stephen King book or the latest Game of Thrones novel). I’d say most are in the eight to 15 hour range. Because there’s no way to skim, I find florid writers a little intolerable. I have a love-hate relationship with George R. R. Martin because he cannot resist describing every pigeon pie and quilted violet doublet in excruciating detail.
  • I prefer fiction for listening, though well-written non-fiction–Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis, for example–works too. I find that the average business book becomes laborious to listen to. They’re often written lazily, and so they demand too much of my focus to maintain a consistent sense of the text.
  • Narrators matter more than you’d think. I never really pick a book based on the narrator, but it’s always nice if I recognize them. I sometimes experience a weird cognitive dissonance when I hear a familiar narrator in a new context. I grew familiar with Scott Brick, for example, while listening to him narrate Justin Cronin’s books. I’m currently listening to the excellent Devil in the White City, and he narrates that one as well. I find myself constantly expecting vampires to climb out of the foundations of the Chicago World’s Fair.

If you dig podcasts, then consider trying an audio book. They’re the same as books, except you insert them through your earholes.


  1. I also got started on audiobooks after listening to podcasts when the limited number of podcasts I subscribe to (mostly CBC and Quick & Dirty Tips) started to run together because of similar style.

    My sources until most recently for audiobooks were often Librivox and the, uh, general Internet. I had to cave and get an Audible subscription for a new release that is not very likely to arrive at my library. It’s a novel that I would much prefer to read in print except it has a most ghastly cover (see Crazy Rich Asians, US edition) and I wanted to support the actress who is reading the novel.

    I like my podcasts to be educational (science, technology, marketing) – material that I might have difficulty concentrating on in print. And I like my audiobooks to be really absorbing even if novels that would never make my usual reading, like The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels. I found podcasts wrecked a marathon I participated in, but they are perfect for getting through a work out, doing chores, walking across the same-old neighbourhoods to run errands, etc.

  2. I also enjoy inserting books through my earholes, but unlike you, I really like listening to non-fiction. (Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve ever even tried a novel this way). I started listening to audiobooks when I used to commute from Vancouver to Surrey – I found it made the 45 min drive to and from work slightly less sucky if I could feel that I was being somewhat productive. Also, I’ve never tried listening to a book while running (I very much love to run to music) though I have been using the Zombies, Run! app, where you get a bit of a story, in which you are a character, told to you as you run, intermixed with music and zombies chasing you, and I do quite like that.

  3. Darren

    My apologies, i have not visited here recently due to being particularly busy on some new business ventures I am undertaking.

    Good post above. Looking forward to observing more of your posts here.


  4. I think your final bullet (narrators matter more than you think) should be the first! I enjoy the Sue Grafton alphabet series due, in large part, to Judy Kaye’s reading (I’m 8 CDs in to her “U is for Undertow”).

    There is an even greater support for this if you listen to the audiobook of Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night”. If you listen to the cassette version, it’s read by Alexandra O’Karma and she absolutely nails it. She has the right tone, the right cadence, the right understanding of the story. The CD version, read by Julie Harris just doesn’t make the grade. How good is O’Karma? It’s worth paying the premium for the cassettes (if you can find them) and finding a cassette player. This is not, by the way, a fast-paced narrative but, rather, one you want to savour as you would a fine and obscure vintage port.

  5. Darren

    I have noticed that It’s extremely quiet on this site in the most recent months. I hope you have not decided to terminate posting. But if so, then we wish you the very best of luck in your other ventures.


  6. I am totally addicted to audio books and consume them at the rate of one a week especially this time of the year when I am on holidays. My teaste varies from Clancy thrillers to Dickens and I often will buy on the strength of a narrator – for example Sean Barrett who does all the Scandi-noir stuff. I rate audible website as one of the finest on the web

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