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!