Figuring out audio books

I’ve had a mixed experienced with audio books so far this year; the first one I finished I loved at first and was bored with by the end. I’m in the middle of my second one now and can’t wait to hear more.

I was looking forward to the first one, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, having heard excellent things about it. And it might have worked better if I read it rather than listened to it. I’m still not sure which type of book works best on audio; while I’ve enjoyed listening to mystery and detective fiction in the past, in the last six months or so a couple of examples haven’t worked well for me, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the genre is tricky to listen to. The Manual of Detection didn’t work well and Agatha Christie didn’t either, while Maisie Dobbs worked great, as did P.D. James. I’m thinking that perhaps the more plot-driven books are harder to listen to, while the slower-paced ones that focus a lot on character and setting work better.

I started off enjoying The Manual of Detection. It’s opening is dark and atmospheric, with a strange, noirish mood to it. It’s set in an unknown city where it’s always raining, and the main character, Charles Unwin, rides to work on a bicycle complete with an umbrella to keep him dry. He’s a clerk in a large detective agency, and he’s very happy with his job processing the reports of a detective he’s never met Travis Sivart. The detective agency is a cold, mechanistic place where people follow strict rules and focus only on their own specialized tasks, nothing else. We learn nothing about any private life Charles Unwin might have; he’s basically a cipher, and he’s perfectly happy to stay that way. When he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to the rank of detective, the only thing he wants is his old job and his old peaceful life back.

All that was excellent; I loved the mood and the tone of the book. But then as Unwin tries to find Sivart in order to return everything to normal, the plot gets odder and odder, more and more fantastical, and I started to lose interest. I’m not quite sure whether it was the plot that didn’t work for me, the fantastical element, or the fact that I was listening to it, but by the end, I was only half paying attention. It was a disappointment.

Now I’m listening to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, and I’m mesmerized. It’s a loose, fictionalized retelling of the life of Laura Bush, and I’m loving its slow, thoughtful pace and tone. The main character is named Alice, and she’s intriguing, in an odd, dull sort of way — she’s careful, quiet, bookish, and independent, not that exciting of a main character, and yet awful things happen to her and soon enough she will become a really well-known and important person (I haven’t gotten to that part yet). It’s fascinating to watch her respond to everything life throws at her.

So, perhaps I need to give up listening to plot-driven mysteries and focus on slow-paced character-driven novels instead?


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Figuring out audio books

  1. I am so glad you said you’re having trouble listening to certain books and not others. I have been an audiobook listener for about a year with mixed results. I think it is also about where I listen. On long drives, I find histories and non-fiction to be best, while walking mysteries and faster-paced novels, in the gym non-fiction… but the premise is that I am going to read while doing something else (driving, walking, treadmill, biking) rather than sitting on the couch or at a coffee shop like I would with a book. Thisis another reason I haven’t gone to a book reader, like Kindle. Still working it all out.


  2. Sounds like you figured out the audiobooks just fine. I rarely listen to audiobooks but when I do I’m just the opposite of you, I like the plot-driven ones because I tend to get a little distracted sometimes and I find it easier to figure out what’s going on if I miss something.


  3. I’ve not listend to any audio books this year yet, but as I am walking more outside now, I have been looking for something good. I’m really picky and if I don’t like it after a couple of walks listening I’ll delete it off my player. I’ve discovered I can’t listen to nonfiction or any story that is too detailed as paying attention to traffic will make me miss things. I listened to a Laura Lippman novel (I think you might have listened to the same one?) that was really good and perfect for walking. So I guess I need a good story that isn’t terribly complicated. You’re very good at writing about what you’ve listened to–I always feel on shaky ground as I can’t go back to look at the text–silly really, but I like seeing names and things on the page.


  4. I used to love audio books when I was little (Narnia and The Minpisn were my favourite) but I’m not tempted by them now. Maybe because it seems like they would be background noise to other tasks, when reading needs my whole attention.


  5. I discovered audio books on a trip to Charlottesville, VA. I brought three Dorothy L. Sayers, and loved them. Only thing is, I’m not so sure it was all that safe. I got so caught up in the story, I drove for miles and miles without really realizing it. It seems that I need my full attention for a book – for both the printed kind or the audio kind. Things were much better, and safer for all those innocent folks on the highway, when I listened to the audio books as I painted my sunroom. Only misfortune which could have been encountered there was the prospect of stepping into the bucket of paint.


  6. Pearl — I’m not sure I can listen to an audio book without doing something else as well, and for me, that’s driving. It’s fascinating to think about how the circumstances of reading change the reading experience, isn’t it?

    Stefanie — but if there’s a lot of plot, you might miss a crucial twist and then it would be hard to figure it out! Well, that’s how I think about it at least. If there’s a lot of landscape description and thoughtful rumination, then I figure I can skip a bit of it and be okay 🙂

    Danielle — yeah, I did listen to a Lippman novel, although the title escapes me now. It was a good one to listen to. I’ll admit that when I write about audiobooks I check out Amazon reviews to make sure I’m spelling the characters’ names correctly and to remind myself of details, since I can’t flip through the book. I do need a little help 🙂

    Jodie — they are a little like background noise, which is why I listen to books I don’t necessarily want to take super, super seriously. Listening is very good for contemporary fiction I’m not sure about or mystery novels or also for classics I’ve already read and so can miss parts of.

    Grad — stepping in a bucket of paint strikes me as a pretty unfortunate consequence! It might be worth while just to listen to music 🙂 I think I do okay at paying attention to the road — I don’t think I space out any more than I do when I’m just thinking my own thoughts, although that contains some danger as well.


  7. I always have this internal debate: should I count audio books to which I’ve finished listening as ‘books read’? I usually don’t… just wonder what you think?


  8. With audio books, I listen to the same thing over and over, and usually they have to be books I’ve already read in paper form. I don’t tend to reread, but audio books represent the rereading I do. I quite understand that it’s hard to find the right match for the form.


  9. JH

    I am currently listening to “American Wife” on audio and am enjoying it very much. However, there is quite a lot in the actual book that is not in the audio book. It is frustrating, to say the least. I like to use the audio books to move me further along in books since I spend a lot of time in my car. When I go to pick up the book where I left off on the cd, there are huge gaps. Anyway, just letting you know :o)


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