Listening to books

I go through stages of listening to audiobooks on my commute to work (about 40 minutes each way) and then not, and now I’m in a stage where I’m listening to them avidly. After finishing Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, I turned to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and then to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which I just finished on the drive home tonight.

Listening to Rebecca was a fabulous experience; it’s my first encounter with a du Maurier novel, and probably not my last. It’s a perfect book to listen to. It’s from a first-person perspective, first of all, which means there’s an intimacy to the voice (a literal voice, of course, not metaphorical) that pulls me into the story. It’s also such a moody, atmospheric novel, and having someone read it to me increases that sense of atmosphere. I respond to the words, of course, but also to a tone of voice and a manner of pronouncing those words, and that tone and manner enrich the whole experience.

I probably don’t need to tell you what a wonderfully fun book it is — such a good story, such interesting relationships among the characters, such a complex situation and a suspenseful ending.

Murder on the Orient Express was also enjoyable to listen to, but it didn’t go quite as well as Rebecca did. I’m wondering if it isn’t as well-suited to listening as du Maurier’s book is. The problem was that it was very hard to keep the details straight. Murder is one of those puzzle-type mysteries where all the evidence is given and it’s possible for the reader to piece it all together (or at least I think it might be — I could never accomplish such a feat myself, so I can only assume that others with minds better suited to the task could). Hercules Poirot and the two men who work with him go over the evidence again and again, scouring it for information and clues. All this was hard to keep straight when I couldn’t flip back and forth in the book to double-check information.

So now I’m thinking I should listen to books that emphasize character and atmosphere rather than ones that require me to keep track of a complicated plot or remember a lot of information. But it’s also true that I’m drawn to character-driven books anyway, so perhaps the audio format just confirms and perhaps enhances the biases that already exist.

Both books showed me that the audio format makes the techniques authors use to generate suspense much more transparent. Since I couldn’t flip a page or two ahead or even look down to the bottom of the page to see what was coming, I had to sit there waiting breathlessly for the narrator to say the words that would clear up the mystery. When Hercules Poirot has gathered everyone together at the novel’s end to go through the evidence one last time and to reveal the solution to the mystery, I was acutely aware of the way Christie has him stop right before the final revelation to make a digression designed to drive the reader crazy with suspense. The ending of Rebecca felt exactly the same way. With a regular book, an author can’t control the order in which you read the words and can only hope that you experience the suspense he or she was trying to create. You can skip ahead on a CD, of course, but it’s not nearly as easy as flipping through the pages of a book skimming for revealing information.


Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Listening to books

  1. I love audio books, too, but I do tend to enjoy them more lying in bed (it’s my luxury form of relaxation) than in the car, where a roundabout or a tricky junction can lose you a whole paragraph. But I’ll bet Rebecca is a really good listen – it’s sort of lush and rich and gently unfolding and would make great commuting entertainment, I can see!


  2. I’m not much on audio books but my husband loves them. He listens to them on the way to and from work. For him it is all about the narrator. I he doesn’t like her/him then no matter how good the book is he can’t continue.

    Glad you liked Rebecca. I enjoyed it very much when I read it a few months ago.


  3. That’s an interesting observation about listening to a story rather than reading it. I just finished Murder on the Orient Express and it struck me as very much a puzzle book with a satisfying end, but not at all visual. No wonder I’ve never been able to watch the movie from start to finish. Listening is visual, too, in that while hearing the story, the listener creates the scene mentally. This book engages the brain’s problem solver rather than a scene creator.


  4. I’m like you, I have a long commute and to make the time go faster, I listen to audiobooks. I’m listening to The Road right now and it’s been amazing so far. You’re right I can only count how many more discs I have left.


  5. I have a fairly short commute, but I still love listening to audiobooks on the way to work. I’ve found that relatively simple books without many characters work well for me, as do memoirs and general popular nonfiction. I have found that I’m more forgiving of some things–especially repetitiveness or belaboring the obvious–than I would be with a print book. (I lose concentration easily enough when listening that it’s nice when the author makes things obvious.)

    And rereading is great on audio. I don’t worry too much about losing the plot thread, but I get to enjoy a good story or good writing–and I cannot skim through to get to my favorite parts, which is always the temptation.

    Unlike Litlove, I couldn’t listen before bed. I’d fall right to sleep, no matter how good the story.


  6. Rebecca was one of my favorite books when I was young–the first of my passion for DuMaurier. It would be great to re-visit it by audio book!


  7. It sounds like you had a good reader for Rebecca. I think it would be a fun story to listen to–I like the idea of the intimacy of the first person narrator telling you the story. I find I can’t listen to nonfiction as there is too much information to take in (but maybe I’ve not chosen the right book), and mysteries either because I often need to flip back and forth to remember characters. Agatha Christie had lots of characters in Murder on the Nile and reading the book I had a hard time keeping them stright. I bet if you had read the story you would have figured it out–I think I’m not a good enough listener for such a task. I’ve not been listening to anything lately–I should look at see what new books are out as I do enjoy them (with the right reader of course!:) ).


  8. Funny you should mention audio books because I just returned to them after a pretty long hiatus. I used to have a 40-minute commute and went through a lot of Teaching Company lectures and audio books; then I got a home office and my car time plummeted.

    I recently got lonely for a good audio book and checked out Atonement–I found I didn’t have enough car time and so bought the book so that I could finish it the old-fashioned way. Not the first time I’ve done this!

    Now I’m listening to In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming, the first in a mystery series I’ve been curious about. The problem is that I really don’t like the reader’s voice–it grates on me so much, but the story is good but not great–so I’ll stick to the audio.

    One of the best audio books was Wuthering Heights. The reader was wonderful and listening kept me from racing ahead and skimming.

    Glad you enjoyed Rebecca. I can see how it would work well in audio format.


  9. I go through phases of listening to books and not listening to them. I seem to be in a not-listening phase (that in thinking about it, seems to have lasted most of this year). A few years ago, though, I listened to du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek and loved it.


  10. Ann

    I am just discovering the pleasure to be had from audio-books, although I do like them to be unabridged. I hadn’t given any thought as to which genres would work best, but I can see that there might be a problem with detective fiction where the slightest detail can be important. I haven’t tried any yet, but I have a credit waiting for me over at Audible, so I must see what they have to offer in that field.


  11. I have some difficulties with audio books, which is strange because I still sometimes read books aloud with other people (that is, we switch off reading aloud). Audio books never really appealed to me and if I’m just sitting around and listening to it through ear-phones, I’m prone to get completely distracted. When someone next to me is reading aloud, though, it’s a familiar voice, one that has goofs and makes mistakes, one that pauses when something cool happens and starts discussing it with me…


  12. Litlove — I haven’t tried listening to audio books in any other way but in the car, I suppose because I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep, or feel antsy, as though I should be doing something. But perhaps I should give it a try — I may love it! I do end up backtracking a bit in the car after I’ve gone through one of those tricky intersections and lost the thread of the story.

    Stefanie — I agree that it’s all about the narrator. I’m lucky that I’m not a very picky listener and I like most of the readers I’ve heard. The reader of the Christie book was kind of iffy, but I think that had to do with the great number of accents he had to create — it would be hard for a reader to do a great job with all of them.

    Lilian — you are so right about the Christie novel not being very visual. “Rebecca,” on the other hand, was extremely visual, so no wonder it worked well. Interesting that you had trouble watching the movie. Your explanation fits all these experiences together nicely.

    Tracie — wow, listening to The Road must be quite an intense experience. I find myself responding to books more emotionally when I listen to them, and I’m not sure I could take all the emotions The Road would inspire!

    Teresa — I had a great time a few years ago listening to all the Austen novels after reading them each multiple times. You’re so right that listening is a great way to “reread”! And I’m more forgiving in general when I listen to books — I get caught up in the emotions more and tend to lose critical distance more easily. That means it works pretty well to listen to popular fiction that might not be of the highest quality — because I won’t mind so much 🙂

    Jenclair — I’m glad I’ve finally read/listened to a du Maurier book — it’s taken me way too long! I shouldn’t wait too long before picking up another.

    Danielle — I haven’t tried nonfiction on audio; I think I’m afraid of the thing you mention — that I would have trouble keeping track of the details. But story-driven nonfiction might work well. I never figure out mysteries even when I read them, so as long as the characters and setting are interesting, I like listening to them, because I don’t even try to figure it out — I just enjoy the story as it unfolds and don’t analyze it much. There’s a large collection of Christie novels in audio at my library, but perhaps I’ll stay away from them, as I think their pleasure is really in dealing with all the details and trying to figure it out.

    Jane — Wuthering Heights would be a great book to listen to! I should see if my library has it. I’m familiar with the story and could focus on the writing and the atmosphere. I agree that the reader matters a whole lot. I find myself liking British readers, just because I enjoy their accents! I sometimes have to find the book to finish reading rather than listening to it, although that’s generally because the discs are damaged — one problem with library audio books.

    Emily — I don’t think my library has more du Maurier books, but I should try to request them through ILL because she SUCH a great author to listen to.

    Ann — oh, I agree about abridgment — I won’t even try a book that’s been abridged. I demand the entire thing! Enjoy choosing something at Audible — that sounds like fun.

    Biblibio — I agree that sitting around listening to a book would cause distraction; I’m not sure I could sit still or stay awake. But listening in the car works pretty well for me. How wonderful it must be to have someone reading right next to you! That sounds lovely.


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