Listen up!

Do you listen to audio books?

I admit to being new to listening to them, afraid my attention span and ability to listen for comprehension of lengthy books would not allow me to get anything out of them. When I moved, though, and my commute went from no time to close to an hour, I gave them a try and am glad I did. Now I’m able to get more reading into each and every day. Moreover, I’m able to dig into books I may otherwise not pick up to read, simply because I’m a captive audience in the car and am willing to give anything a try.

This weekend, I traveled up to Wisconsin to attend a conference on listening for literacy which focused on audio books. As a newbie to audio books, I learned about how naive I’d been and how little I really knew about audio books and what makes them good and bad (though admittedly, I knew there WAS a reason I loved the audios of Al Capone Does My Shirts, Dairy Queen, and Wednesday Wars and was just not crazy about books like The Dead and the Gone and Nineteen Minutes).

Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the entire day, I thought I’d share some of the cool things I learned that might make you a better listener, as well.

First and foremost, I learned there are three types of audio books:

  • Fully voiced — this is when there is a separate voice for each character, and the Harry Potter series would be a good example. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a different person doing each voice, but rather, it could be one person who has developed enough voices for each character. I’ll talk more on this in a bit.
  • Partially or semi-voiced — this is when the main character and perhaps 1-2 of the other major characters have separate voices. The rest of the characters are in the general narrator’s voice.
  • Unvoiced — this is when the narrator just reads the story and (hopefully) reads it well.

Although listeners can have a preference for one of these, they can all be done well or all be done poorly. But what makes a good audio book and what makes a bad one? If you’re listening to one and aren’t sure, consider these:

  • Are the words pronounced correctly? Is the narrator using an authentic accent? One of the presenters mentioned a book set in Wisconsin where the narrator had a mid-Atlantic accent and it really killed the book for her as a Wisconsinite. The Dairy Queen, on the other hand, has an authentic Wisconsin accent.
  • Is the book complete with a clear, crisp sound? Is the volume consistent?
  • Do you hear juicy mouth sounds? Is the narrator’s voice hoarse?
  • Has the producer done a good job if material was dubbed not making it obvious? Is the text being repeated or omitted or cut too short? Are chapter breaks awkward or poorly timed?
  • Are names of the title, author, and narrator correct? One of the presenters said that there was one book where the reader mispronounced the name Nguyen and a student with that name was turned off entirely (for those of you unsure, that’s “win,” and the reader said “nah-guy-en”)
  • Does the reader mostly match the age and experience — at least in sound — to the main characters?
  • The readers connect to the text and are generally excited by the reading and discovery in the beauty of the story and the language.
  • Is music used effectively? Walden — the one by Thoreau — apparently has fantastic music interludes and was lauded for that reason.

All of these aspects are what people who listen to audio books begin to understand. They develop a “listening literacy” in a way that readers who read a lot develop about books — pacing, voice, and so forth. Moreover, listeners also gain stronger understanding of cause and effect, predictability, and how language works. During a panel that brought in local teens to talk with us about their listening habits, it was very cool hearing how much they love learning new vocabulary through listening.

Reflecting on my own audio book experiences and thinking about these things, I know exactly what it was about each of my listens that made it enjoyable or less enjoyable.

Back to my earlier comment about fully voiced audio books — have any of you listened to a production by Fullcast Audio? The director and two voice actors (David Kelly who did Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn and Chelsea Mixon of Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days) came to talk about their company. Rather than depend on one or two narrators, Fullcast hires, well, a voice for each character. Think reader’s theatre on audio. I’ve yet to listen to one, but after seeing a piece about their forthcoming production of Eyes Like Stars and listening to David and Chelsea do a scene from Hale’s book, I can say I plan on hunting out a few of their titles at the library now!

Finally, I wanted to say that listening to teens talk about their favorite audio books was so insightful. I think there were probably 15 or so students there, and the most surprising and exciting thing they said was that audio books are the reason they’re willing to try books they otherwise would never pick up from the shelf. Need I mention the boys ALL said that the Twilight series was one of their favorites to listen to?

So, do you do audio books? What are some of your favorites? What do you listen for? If you haven’t, perhaps you’d love to try your hand at winning a copy of The Dairy Queen from us.

As for me, I’m listening to M. T. Anderson’s Feed, even though it’s a book I’d never pick up. What a fantastically done audio book that has really drawn me in.

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  1. says

    I LOVE audios. The narrator makes all the difference. I'll listen to anything Jim Dale (of Harry Potter note) reads, even if it's a chronicle of how the paint in his house dries. He did something like over 40 different, distinct voices for Harry Potter 4. He is absolutely incredible.

    I've never listened to an audio narrated by more than one person. I *think* some of Pullman's works have been done that way, but I almost can't bear to find out, because if I listen and it's terrible, my heart will be crushed.

  2. says

    I love, love, love audiobooks. And you're totally right – having a longer commute has made me more willing to try different types of stories on audio.

    I'm personally not a huge fan of full cast audiobooks, but that's just me.

    I tend to stick with shorter books, but I'm about to start my first long adult audiobook ("Guns, Germs, and Steel"), so I will report back. 😉

  3. says

    I listen to audiobooks every day my 32 mile (roundtrip) commute and, while I'm fairly tolerant of all manner of styles and quirks, some things do bother me.
    1. When the narrator is a mumble-mouth or speaks too quietly or too quickly (this most often happens with big-name actors, 2 examples being Ed Asner reading "Scat" and Tim Robbins reading "The Great Gatsby")
    2. When there are odd pronunciations of words (I'm listening to "Skin Hunger," in which the narrator keeps pronouncing the word corridor as 'corder' – drives me nuts!)
    3. Wrong accents (I'm not good at knowing if accents are authentic or not, so when even I can tell…! I'm forgetting which ones, but at least one of the narrators for E. Lockhart's books has a total Midwestern accent (maybe Michigan?) and yet the books take place either in Seattle or on the East Coast. I LOVED the narrator for Dairy Queen – sounded totally authentic to me (my sis lives in Minnesota))

  4. says

    I think it might freak me out too much on head phones. It's already getting me paranoid just listening in the car! Way too close to reality. Wicked good audio book….I think it'd be a really hard book to read. But it was MADE for audio.

  5. says

    I've always used audiobooks during my commutes for work, but this last year, when not working, they've become my workout "music" as well. I do three miles a day and never listen to actual music anymore! Currently listening to A Thousand Never Evers, which is fabulously read, but always looking for more suggestions!

  6. says

    I love audiobooks, and have been listening to them since I was in high school. I read more books, than listen to them. But audiobooks are great when I'm excerising (rare, but it does happen), in the car, or cleaning house.

    I have listened to a number of Full Cast Audio books. I live in Syracuse, where Full Cast Audio is located, and have a lot of their audiobooks in the library where I work. Actually, the narrator for The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (Cynthia Bishop) was a children's librarian in the library system where I work.

    Anyway, I love Full Cast Audio. The Goose Girl is wonderful. I recently listened to Book of a Thousand Days, and it was amazing. I loved Cynthia Mixon's voice for the MC, Dashti. I definitely recommend that one, and The Goose Girl. Both by Shannon Hale.

    On another note, I have listened to Dairy Queen, and also found it to be a wonderful audiobook production. I love the narrator's accent. I'm not from the midwest, so I am not completely familiar with that accent, but it felt right in the audiobook.

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