Remember the days when the only way to listen to a book was via the radio?
The options were limited. BBC Radio 4 had Book at Bedtime and about 15 minutes of a serialisation within Woman’s Hour. When Parliament wasn’t in session we had the treat of another 15 minutes slot in the morning where Today in Parliament normally sat in the schedules.
All fine if you happened to be somewhere near a radio at the allotted time. But if not, it was just hard luck.
How life has changed
Today I no longer have to tie myself to the radio schedules or sit in one place to listen. I can use BBC Sounds as a catch up service, listening in via my computer while I move about the house or garden.
But I don’t even have to restrict myself to radio broadcasts.
I can listen to audio recordings of books whenever I want to and wherever I want to be.
Thousands of books
Available any time of day or night
On every day of the year.
Advances in technology have affected virtually every aspect of our lives. But I’ve only now realised just how much they’ve changed the way I engage with books, and in particular with audio versions of books.
1970s and 80s: All Hail The Cassette Tape
While searching for a screwdriver in our garage yesterday, I came across some of my husband’s very old and sad-looking cassette tapes. I’ve yet to work out what they were doing in the boxes of tools mixed up with the pliers and hammers… but that’s maybe another story.
Cassette tapes? Never heard of them? They’re no longer around (except as a very niche trend. But they were essential pieces of equipment for those of us whose teenage and young adult years spanned the seventies and eighties.
Audio cassettes (also known as compact cassettes) were little plastic cartridges containing two spools of magnetic tape. All you had to do was buy the cassette version of an album recorded by your favourite band; slot the cassette into a player; grab your headphones and away you’d go into musical heaven.
The launch of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 gave even more flexibility – now we could listen while we walked, worked or just lounged around.
You could even create a playlist by recording selected tracks from another cassette or from a radio station.
But the joys of cassettes weren’t confined to music. In the mid 80s I discovered you could also get audio recordings of books on cassette. The local library had a great selection available at minimal cost. By then cassette players came as standard fixtures in cars. Instead of arriving at work agitated after listening to politicians argue on the prime time radio news programmes, I could be chilled having listened to a good book.
It wasn’t quite a case of unbounded pleasure however because, though cassette tapes were light and portable, they did have one major flaw: the tape tended to get mangled inside the plastic casing after multiple plays.
I’d be in my car, listening to a recording, when suddenly it would stop. Inevitably it happened at the most exciting/interesting part of the story.
If I was lucky, I could eject the cassette. But yards of tape would have come off the spools and would be lying crinkled and twisted in a spaghetti mess on my lap .
The remedy was primitive. And not one you could embark upon while stuck at the traffic lights.
You grabbed a pencil, wedged it into one spool and tried to hold it rigid while slowly attempting to wind the tape back onto the other spool. A painfully slow process with only a faint hope of success.
1990s: Shiny New Objects
Which was why, when the next gizmo came along, I embraced it with unparalleled joy. In 1982 the technology whizz kids at Philips and Sony launched a new audio storage device they called the compact disc (CD).
It marked the beginning of the end for the cassette tape. And the introduction to a new way of consuming more books
It took a few years before I latched onto CDs but I rapidly became a fan, ditching all my cassette tapes in favour of these ultra-light shiny objects. I wasn’t the only one – most of us had purpose build CD storage towers in our homes and wallet-style carrying cases in our cars.
In 1993, the tide had turned completely and sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes for the first time. By then the technology giants had figured out how to make CD players in cars shock proof (no more skipping a track when you drove over a pothole). A few years later the first portable CD player, the CD Walkman, came on the market making it easy to take your music wherever you went.
I still have one of these portable CD players though I seldom use it.
If you just wanted music you’d be in a good spot because the albums were cheap to buy. Just as well because the discs had a terrible tendency to get scratched. It was partly my own fault. I kept forgetting to put them into their protective cases. So they’d be ruined and unplayable.
But I wanted audiobooks. And that had its own challenges.
The storage capacity of each disc meant a whole book required at least six discs – sometimes double that for one of the chunkier classics. It made them way too expensive to buy, especially at the rate I would get through them. The library fortunately began investing in the new format but a whole audio book was quite a large package. Fine if you just wanted to listen in the car but not much use for taking on flights or long train rides. They took up far too much space.
Technology for a New Century
In 2001 Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, invited us to say “hello” to the brave new world of full portability and solid state technology.
The days of flimsy tape and scratchy discs were over, he said. It was time for the era of the IPod. A small device with astonishing capacity and potential.
It wasn’t his promise of 1,000 songs in my pocket that appealed to me most. What really sold me on the iPod was that I could use it to listen to audio books. It didn’t just store these recordings, the associated ITunes application gave me access to an enormous library via a few clicks. Not just a library of books, but with the birth of podcasts in 2004, a library of thousands of programmes and discussions about books.
I bought my first iPod in 2002 during a work trip to Michigan. I couldn’t drive back to my hotel fast enough so I could open the box and begin playing with my new toy.
Except that I couldn’t.
This much heralded white gizzmo only slightly bigger than a cigarette packet refused to function. Not even when I discovered that I first had to charge the battery. The old cassette and CD players never had that problem – all they needed was a power supply or a few AA batteries.
Eight hours or so later and still not so much as a peep. So back to the store for a replacement. Same thing happened again. By now I was seriously questioning whether the iPod was all it was cracked up to be.
It was. It still is.
Every once in a while a new product comes along that changes everything.Steve Jobs, 2001
Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he made that claim about the Ipod. It certainly transformed part of my life.
Listening to an audio book made the long flights I had to take for work much easier to bear. They helped when international time zone differences would see me awake in the early hours of the morning in a strange hotel room, unable to get back to sleep. In more recent years when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment I used my little machine to access some relaxation and breathing exercises I could get via the ITunes application.
Are We Ever Satisfied?
Technology never stays still does it? Each generation of the iPod since 2001 has been smaller. And lighter. And more powerful. I’m on my fourth device now and can’t imagine being without one. Although my phone has some of the same functions I still prefer to listen to audio via the iPod.
As enamoured as I am with this brand of MP3 player, it does have its frustrations.
- The battery charge doesn’t last anywhere as long as it did on the early versions.
- ITunes library is now over-complicated. It seems impossible to completely delete Podcast episodes.
- Too many apps I don’t want but can’t delete (like my non existent stock portfolio).
- In-ear headphones that keep falling out. Are my ears different sizes to everyone else’s? I’ve bought many, many pairs over the years both low price and high end. And none of them have worked. I’ve resorted to using the hook over versions but the wiring is fragile so they break easily.
I’ve learned to live with most of these frustrations. But there’s one that drives me crazy.
I absolutely hate ear phone cables. There I’ve said it.
They always always always end up in a knot. I wind them carefully as soon as I finish using them. Tuck them into my bag in a neat roll. But you can bet the next time I go to use them they’ll be in a mess. Again.
Added to this is that they get in my way in the gym, dangling right where my arm wants to move – invariably I catch my thumb on the cable and the machine goes careering onto the floor. It’s favourite landing place is underneath the treadmill; a retrieval process which involves much swearing and grunting. By the time the two of us are re-united, the play function has helpfully skipped a chapter or two.
My Wishlist For the Future
Technology never stands still. Earlier today came news that Apple will launch a new video streaming service and a new version of the Apple iPhone. Samsung will launch its new folding phone within a few days (a snip at $1800). None of these advancements interest me.
What I really want, what I really really want is a more streamlined way to listen to my audio books. One that
- doesn’t involve dangling cables
- connects to the player via Bluetooth but doesn’t require me to wear heavy headphones ( the rap artist look doesn’t appeal)
- fits snugly in my ears
- allows voice control to select tracks, change volume etc – that way I can keep both hands on the steering wheel or go walking in cold weather without having to remove gloves.
See, my needs are quite simple. These advancements are not as sexy as those the techno folks are undoubtedly working on right now. I just hope they don’t come up with something that robs me of my ability to listen to books easily, cheaply and with great sound quality.
Audio books – you either love them or think they’re a pale imitation of the real experience you get when you read a book in print. I’m in the former camp. I don’t view them as an alternative to reading but as a valued companion.
They’ve been a godsend on many a long flight when the eyes are too tired to read and there’s nothing of interest on the in flight entertainment system. They help time go faster on the treadmill. In the days when I had to commute to work, they were a calmer way to start the day than listening to the frequent political rants on radio news programmes. They even make ironing palatable.
The downside is that they’re expensive to buy (Margaret Attwood’s Hag Seed would set you back £18 for example). Perhaps for that reason they’re not easily available second hand. You can reduce the price by taking out a subscription with Audible but it’s not worth it if you’re only an occasional user. Thankfully, there are ways to get some audiobooks free or at very low cost.
1. Your public library
You may be fortunate to live in a country that hasn’t decimated its public library system. Most of those services in the UK let you borrow audiobooks in CD format for a nominal sum – in my area it’s £1.50 a time. Many of them now have a tie in with a service provider like BorrowBox or OneClickDigital so you can download the audiofile free of charge to your computer, phone or MP3 player. The range of titles is reasonable if not wonderful; don’t expect to find that many ‘literary’ options but there will certainly be a good selection of classics and crime novels.
Librivox, which has been running since August 2005, is a non-commercial, non-profit project. Its mission is to “make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.” Their collection is extensive but there are a few downsides. One is that they source most of the texts from Project Gutenberg meaning all of them are books whose copyrights have expired. The selection is rather hit and miss as a result – plenty of Charles Dickens, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle but no Agatha Christie or Grahame Greene. The biggest issue I’ve encountered however is on the variable quality. While some recordings are read by actors or professionals, many are solo readings by amateurs in makeshift home studios. But since it’s all free, if the recording isn’t to your taste you haven’t wasted any money.
3. Loyal Books
Loyal Books claims that users will “always find the best collection of completely free public domain audiobooks…” on their site. This includes material in a variety of languages like German, French and Chinese. They’ve been digitised and recorded by volunteers or – in the majority of cases – by Gutenburg. In essence they are offering the same kind of texts as Librivox but say their superior search function makes the experience more user friendly. They also offer e-texts of best sellers but I found the selection very poor.
4. Mind Webs
This is much more than an audio recording site. It started in 1996, collecting published works of all formats and making them available digitally. This is a project on a massive scale – 4 million audio recordings (including 160,000 live concerts), 1 million images for example. The audio recordings cover the usual suspects in the realm of the classics with plenty of options for fringe interests – anyone fancy a recording of Thucydides’ Histories? (the history of the first 20 years of the war between Athens and Sparta). They My favourite section of this site however is their Old Time Radio collection featuring, among others, Sherlock Holmes and Orson Wells.
5. Open Culture
Open Culture has sifted through the free audiobooks offered elsewhere online, and compiled them into one list of 900 browsable titles. You’ll find they’re mostly classics of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, by authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky but you’ll also come across more modern authors like Arthur C Clarke, Junot Diaz , Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Maya Angelou and Charles Bukowski. As a bonus you can watch a video of Neil Gaiman reading Coraline.
This site takes a different approach to most of the other service providers. They offer newer releases rather than classics and are mainly self-published works. The cost for each download is varied since Scribl uses a crowd-pricing strategy where the price is based on each title’s download popularity within its genre. You’ll find some texts are free, many are less than a dollar but the price of some of the highest rated books can go up to $8. If you like to experiment with new authors, this could be a good option – catch the moment right and you’ll have a bargain.
Lit2Go is another site which takes a different path. It offers a free online collection of folk tales, stories, passages and poems in Mp3 (audiobook) format. However it is more geared to educators than general readers since many of the passages can be downloaded also as a PDF and used for supplemental reading in the classroom. Readability levels are given for the books using the Flesch-Kincaid grade levels
|Audiobooks – love them or indifferent. Where do you stand?
Are you a lover of audiobooks? If so how do you source them since I might have missed some sites.
If you’re not a fan, is this because you’ve tried them and didn’t enjoy the experience or believe there’s only one way to appreciate a book, and that’s to read it?
Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.
The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.
The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration. In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman.
I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week. Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.
I’ve learned a few things over the years.
One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.
Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.
Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.
Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.
I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?
Day 1 of a new month – and a new year. It’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I have about 90 pages left of Washington Square by Henry James. This is my spin book for the classics club and also counts as book number one from my list for the 2015 TBR challenge. Initially I wasn’t very engaged by this story of a sweet but plain and dull daughter and her brilliant but emotionally-distant doctor father. It’s now become significantly more interesting as the pair clash over a suitor that Catherine loves but her father considers a ‘selfish idler’ only interested in the girl because she is a wealthy heiress.
I’ll finish this today and can then turn more of my attention to the book chosen as my first read of 2015 In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahmen. I started reading this yesterday and if it continues in the same way I think this is going to be an enjoyable book.
I gave up on my last audio book Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. I didn’t like the style – there were far too many times Weir used expressions like “Elizabeth must have known ….” or “Elizabeth would have felt….” I don’t expect to find this kind of conceit in a historical biography. I’ve switched to The Year of Living Dangerously : How Fifty Great Books Saved my Life by Andy Miller. This is a non-fictional account of how a Londoner began thinking re-kindled his love of reading, starting with books that he’d always meant to read but never got around to, and those other people couldn’t believe he hadn’t already read. A few chapters in he reveals he studied literature at university and works at publishing company evaluating submitted scripts from would be authors so it’s decidedly odd to find that he’s never read Middlemarch or Anna Karenina. Still I’m enjoying his irreverent tone, as he comments on some of the novels he read while on the 6.44am train to work in London and while in the queue at the post office. There’s a good interview with him at The Dabbler if you’re interested.
The DVDs that we were given as Christmas presents have proved a mixed bag. The Quartet had oodles of famous faces but not even Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Tom Courtney could rescue a very thin plot. The Dallas Buyers Club was good as was Flight with Denzil Washington. But 12 Years a Slave which we watched on New Year’s Eve was tedious. Far too many shots where the lead actor looks into the distance and we were meant to understand what was going on in his head. We now have a boxed set of The Wire to look forward to watching.
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I’ve been promising myself that I would get around to reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters this year ( it’s been on my TBR shelf for a few years). I was hoping for something with a similar focus on a social question as the only other novel of hers that I’ve read – North and South – but so far this is more a study of English provincial life just before the 1832 Reform Act.
Almost finished the audio version of Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman in which multiple narrators turn detective to try to discover what happened to the character in Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work. Was the suicide verdict justified or was Rebecca murdered? And what happened to Mrs Danvers? To answer the questions our amateur detectives have to dig into Rebecca’s past. Its more enjoyable as an audio book for me then as a book to read.
I’m back in the USA which means I get another fix of Law and Order. I’ve no idea how many series of this were made but there seems to be an endless supply when you add the spin off Law and Order Special Victims Unit into the mixture.
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I have just a few pages left to read of Ali Smith’s latest novel How to Be Both. It’s a wonderful novel because of the innovative narrative structure — one part is the story of an early Renaissance mural artist; the second is about an inquisitive teenage girl in the present day. Some editions start with the artist, some with the teenager so readers get to have a different way of interacting with the text. My version began with the artist. At first I couldn’t see how the two stories would come together but I had underestimated Ali Smith’s talent. This is such a superb novel that I’ll be astounded beyond belief if it doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize later this month.
Next on my list to read is a novel I was given as a gift by a work colleague in South Korean who was excited to learn I wanted to discover a local author. So now I am going to be reading Please Look after Mom by the South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin. This novel, which has reached sales of more than a million copies in the country, is about woman who gets lost in the crowd at a train station in Seoul. Her selfish family of husband, two sons and two daughters who haven’t really given her much love and attention until now are forced by her disappearance to re-evaluate their lives and their relationships.
I’m making slow progress with the audio version of Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. It’s not as easy to listen to while driving as crime fiction so I find myself having to stop and rewind frequently because I’ve lost track of who is who.
The West Wing series is one of my favourite TV programs to come out of the USA. Some of the episodes get a bit bogged down in detail that is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the American government and political system but the characters are highly watchable and there is a tremendous energy in these programs. Those guys are so constantly on the move they must easily beat the recommended 10,000 steps a day. We’re revisiting the whole series at the moment and we’re in the midst of the election campaign for the next President. Great fun.
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I’m in the closing stages of History of the Rain by Niall Williams which was long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I enjoyed most of it, particularly the humourous reflections of its narrator Ruth Swain on the history of her eccentric family. At 19 years old she’s confined to bed by an unnamed blood disorder. Her attic room is filled with thousands of books once owned by her poet father. Through them Ruth tells his story and her own.
Next on my list to read is The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, an author of Chinese origin whose work I’ve not experienced until now. The Good Earth, the first in a trilogy about family life in a Chinese village was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and influenced Buck’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
On the iPod is Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. The Wars of the Roses period and the Tudor dynasty were staple topics on my school and college curricula but Elizabeth ( wife of one king, mother to another and grandmother to three monarchs) only got a small walk on part. Weir’s biography published in 2013 helps redress the balance.
I’m not watching anything much at the moment since all the hotel can offer its visitors who want English language programmes is the tedious BBC World and the equally tedious CNN. Neither of these I find satisfying because they spend no more than about two minutes on a story before moving to the next. You get about five stories in the segment and then the next before we get some trailers for upcoming programmes and the weather everywhere in the world except where you are at that precise moment. Then the whole cycle starts again as if they don’t believe that viewers can retain info for longer than 10 minutes. It’s rather like having a meal made entirely of appetisers.
Can a book change the way you think? That’s the question for the month over at Classics Club. I haven’t yet fully worked out my answer in terms of the impact of reading classics but I can say for sure that my current audio book has affected my choice of music.
I don’t usually blog about audio books but I do listen to them regularly – they are what keeps me sane on the daily commute to work even if it’s not a particularly long trip. And on the days when I have a longer and solitary drive to an airport prior to a business trip somewhere, then they prove a godsend. I can take only so much of news interviewers badgering politicians to try and get behind the pat answers.
Over the years of listening I’ve discovered that some genres work better than others as audio versions.
In the non fiction category, I’ve tried a couple of business type books but with varying success. Malcolm Gladwell‘s Tipping Point worked but Jim Collins’ Good to Great didn’t – I kept losing concentration on that one. Some classics have been good listens (The Warden by Anthony Trollope was one) but many of the literary fiction novels I’ve given up on such as Oryx and Crake. It seems that I can’t cope with the level of concentration needed by the latter without risking an accident.
The one genre that’s worked consistently well is crime fiction and fortunately thanks to Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin et al I’ve been well supplied for the last few years. But through the wonders of the blogosphere I heard of an author I’ve never read or listened to before, Canada’s Louise Penny. There was just one title in audio format available in my local library; The Beautiful Mystery. It’s a murder mystery which is set in a remote monastery whose inhabitants are world-reknowned for their singing prowess. The effect of their voices as they render ancient chants is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”
The Beautiful Mystery is a cut above the average murder mystery story. But the producers of this audio version should be sent to purgatory for ommiting to give us the same experience enjoyed by Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir. As they try to penetrate the veil of secrecy in the cloisters they get to hear what makes the monks’ singing so special. You’d have thought any smart producer would have had the wit to include some snatches of Gregorian chants ourselves to help conjure up the atmosphere. Instead we just get told how magical these cloistered brothers sound.
After three days of frustration waiting and hoping to hear a few bars, I gave up and went in search of my own sound track. So now I am the proud owner of my first ever CD of Gregorian chant. It now nestles on the iPod in amongst Elvis Costello, the Beatles and of course Adele. All I have to figure out now is how to listen to the music and the audio book at the same time.