The Audiobook Attempt

When I was at secondary school, I used to record myself reading quotes I had to remember or essays I’d written for exam revision. I thought that I had a much better auditive than visual memory – and I still remember people’s voices better than their faces. So I should be the natural audience for audiobooks, right?

The Virtual Crime Book Club read for November is Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, her first in the series continuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. Since I’m trying not to spend too much money on books and since my library visits are few and far between, I thought I would give it a go as an audiobook. It came free with a trial Audible subscription for a month, and it’s exactly the sort of light-hearted, unchallenging novel that might work well when listened to.

So, perfect material, perfect audience… everything should have gone smoothly, right? It turns out: no. Not quite.

First, the challenge of finding the time to listen to 11 hours and 12 minutes of it, when I know that I could probably read it much faster myself. I don’t like just listening without multitasking, because it feels like a waste of time (and if I do it in bed at night, I tend to doze off and miss most of it). But I obviously cannot do it while working or writing or having dinner with the boys. Scrolling through Twitter only takes up a small proportion of the day (and even that is not fully compatible with listening to an audiobook.) I tried listening while cooking (too loud), cleaning the bathrooms (tended to fall out of my pocket – danger of drowning in the toilet), ironing (I don’t do enough of it – I’m currently only ironing the boys’ school trousers). And of course, I no longer commute – that would have been the perfect time for it (although in the car I prefer to listen to music).

What worked best was using it while exercising at the gym or running. Which would make for very slow progress, since I only do that for about half an hour a day, so it would take 22 days to go through a book like that! And even so, things got a bit confusing when the narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt (who does all sorts of different voices and accents, bordering on the caricatural) blended with Michael Johnson from my Couch to 5k app: ‘And I tell you, Monsieur Poirot, sir, that… you’ve got one minute left, you’re doing great, keep up the pace!’

Secondly, I struggled to remember who said what or the chronology of things. If I missed one sentence spoken more softly, I then laboured for half a chapter under the impression that they were talking about one woman when in fact they were talking about another one. I mixed up the different names and characters, despite the strong foreign accents (which, in the case of the Italian hotel manager in particular, downright annoyed me, but was supposed to be helpful in differentiating them to the listener). The split narrative, between Hercule Poirot in third person and his sidekick Catchpool in first person, didn’t help either, as I soon lost track of who had discovered what and precisely when. They did keep summarising and repeating the facts – to the point where I wanted to fast-forward – but then I somehow lost track of the actual explanations and conclusions (rather than the red herrings).

That might have been partly the fault of the book, but it certainly didn’t help that I couldn’t go back a page or so to establish who’s who, see quite clearly where I was in the physical book or skim read ahead when I got to yet another summary passage. I found that the next day I could remember tiny details but not the overall thrust of the story or where I’d got up to, as if my memory had been wiped.

Just imagine if I’d tried to read a more challenging or longer text, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with which I’ve been grappling recently! I can lose myself on the written page, but my mind tends to wander while listening. So sadly, I don’t think audiobooks are for me, now will I be renewing my subscription to Audible: I can just about manage a short podcast (30-45 minutes seems to be my limit), especially if it’s in a conversational format.

Last but by no means least: I struggle with earbuds. They irritate my ears, I hate placing something inside them, and I keep having to stuff them in while running, because they pop out. While headphones – well, I have enough of them quite frankly, after a day of Teams meetings. And when I have them on, I can’t hear my children (including the cat) calling to me.

Which might be an argument for audiobooks, now that I think of it!

34 thoughts on “The Audiobook Attempt”

  1. You’ve summed up pretty well why I don’t listen to audiobooks. I did sit down and listen to Under Milk Wood years ago which was wonderful but I still found myself fidgeting.

    1. I remember listening to that when I was a child (the Richard Burton version? his voice was like milk and honey) and ill in bed. My mother used to borrow radio dramas (this was before iplayer) from the British Council, and I enjoyed those. I think the variety of voices, the sound effects and so on made them a very different experience.

  2. Ah, I was going to recommend bluetooth headphones, but clearly not! Haha, so many of your issues are ones I’ve struggled with too. I’ve had to work hard to train myself to enjoy audiobooks (don’t know why I did, really, except that so often the narrators sounded so enticing) but I’ve found that really classics work better for me than contemporary crime or fiction. I think the slower pace of them works better and often I know the story already so don’t have that experience of getting lost. Re-reads work well too, for the same reason. But I still have the falling asleep problem… 😉

    1. Yes, I think it might work with rereading… but I just feel such an affinity with reading it myself. Ironically, I used to subject my parents to HOURS of audiobooks, aka me reading out loud to them as a child, because I fancied myself a bit of an actress and wanted to share my favourite books with them.

  3. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for years, while commuting or exercising. It can be challenging to find the kind of book that works well in that format: if it’s too “interior” I lose concentration but if too fast paced, I miss out on key info as you experienced. I’ve found that texts with multiple narrators are more difficult than single narrators. As for earphones falling out – the only solution I’ve found is the sports style ones which have a loop fitting that goes behind the ear. Much more secure.

    1. I think if I were commuting still or exercising for longer than 30 minutes, I would probably be keener to use audiobooks. It certainly made me forget how painful the running was…

      1. I listen only when exercising indoors because its so boring to be staring at the screen of the treadmill/cross trainer. But when I go out walking I can enjoy more the scenery so no need for distractions

    1. So many people told me that they were converted to audiobooks, so it can definitely happen. I think I’ll leave it for later, when I need to take more care of my eyesight.

  4. I have particular series that I listen to as audiobooks – most months I get a Poirot with my credit – the originals, narrated by Hugh Fraser, who is brilliant. I’m very picky about the narration and some books definitely work much better for me in that format than others. As for time, I do sometimes listen while I’m working, if I have a repetitive mindless admin task that I need to do for a couple of hours – but it’s mostly while I’m doing various chores, and I use a smart speaker rather than headphones because I also don’t like the feeling of having earbuds in.

    1. Ah, another person who doesn’t like earbuds. I have to admit I’m a Luddite in a way, as I don’t like smartspeakers either. (Having come from a country and era when we had listening devices installed in our home, I don’t fancy doing it myself now!)

  5. Same 😊 I have tried but it just takes TOO long. I’ve finished one audio EVER and that was pure perseverance. There definitely is a market for audio but just not for me at the moment.

    1. Yes, exactly, I can read so much faster than listen! Perhaps a combination of having the printed book and the audio version, so that if I’m really into the story but need to go out shopping or exercising or whatever, then I can still listen to it, but then continue reading on the page when I get back home.

  6. Well done for trying it. As a reader in multiple formats, I’ve found that certain kinds of books don’t work for me in audio. Complex literary fiction without a strong narrative pull and books with large casts are a challenge to keep up with when my attention is invariably snatched away crossing roads, dodging pedestrians or navigating complex traffic systems (I do my listening while running, walking or driving). For me, plot-driven, small cast books and narrative non-fiction are the winners for audio. I keep the rest for page or e-reader.

    That said, there are some audio books that add layers that print books don’t have. Trevor Noah’s narration of his memoir ‘Born a Crime’ is a standout example. If you can bear it, I’d advise a second go…

    1. Yes, I’ve heard good things about that audiobook, and also about Michelle Obama’s audio narration of her own book. Those might be worth another try, perhaps when I am planning a long road trip.

  7. I’m clearly in the minority here! I love audiobooks but I realize not all books work in that medium. There needs to be a clear plotline and some action. I listen to it while commuting (which still exists for me at the moment), while walking in the woods (my weekly “sport”), while cooking and while doing some mindless work tasks.

    1. You’re not at all in the minority – most people I know just love them (and podcasts) and use them a lot. I clearly need to go for longer walks or try a greater variety of books. But I think I might do that when I’m a bit older and in danger of losing my eyesight…

  8. LOL! All the reasons why I’m wary of audiobooks. If I’m honest I love listening to poetry being read, but I would much rather engage with longer works in print form. And I do like the occasional podcast (Backlisted/Locklisted) but only if I gel with the presenters and they kind of thing they’re covering. So print for me anyday!

  9. Everyone’s so different about what works for them, Marina Sofia. You’ve outlined a lot of reasons for which I don’t use audiobooks, myself (although I have listened to a few things on them). And you make a really interesting point that not all books lend themselves to that media. On the other hand, I know people who adore audiobooks, and actually prefer them to traditional books. Hmm…..as for me, I prefer reading to listening, but that’s just me.

  10. I sympathize with your audiobook woes. I’ve had some of the same issues, but finally figured out what works for me is listening to them when working on design projects. Being in ‘the flow’ helps for some reason. And when I really can’t sleep and my eyes are too tired to read, I listen to the comforting voice of Hugh Fraser reading Agatha Christie.

  11. I can’t do audio books, though I like listening to music or podcasts (though not often these days) audio books and I don’t get on. Firstly I miss text, but I also find audio books quite soporific, so couldn’t possibly relax in a chair and listen, I would be asleep in minutes.

  12. I’m like you, I can’t concentrate or find enough time. In the car, I was missing some sentences, it never worked.
    What I’ve never tried is theatre : I wonder if it’s nice in audiobook or not.

    1. I do quite like radio plays – so not live recordings of theatre, but adapted for the radio. I find them much easier to listen to – although I still have the problem of ‘when’.

  13. I was nodding (figuratively speaking!) at all these points, Marina, I think you are spot on. Also there’s the sensual aspect which you touch on — that ability to turn back pages, to pause and skim over pages, the physicality of an object — which, when added to a narrative that isn’t constrained by one speaker’s interpretation of voices, accents and pace, really establishes me firmly on the side of the paper book.

    Dramatisations with a cast of actors is slightly different — I used to enjoy the odd radio play based on a classic or stage drama — but I still prefer a book I can enjoy at my own pace.

    1. Drama and poetry do feel different, and I like listening to them – it’s also about different interpretations etc. But with many books, it’s the content I’m interested in rather than the performance of the content.

  14. A really interesting take on listening to the audio book rather than reading. I loved it for highlighting all the good reasons there really are to continue valuing the reading experience and the control we have over it!

  15. I’ve tried audio books and for the reasons you’ve said they don’t work for me either. 30 minutes on the treadmill means it would take ages to get through. Plus the reader either reads too slowly for me, or too quickly if I speed it up. I’ll try again, one day.

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