All this time I’ve been totally wrong about audio books

22822858Whenever people talk to me about audio books (or podcasts), I joke that I’m too self-absorbed to listen for hours to another person talking.

Today though I for some reason decided to buy an audiobook! I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which is immensely long (and immensely good), and on Amazon they’ll sometimes have these deals where if you buy the kindle version of a book you can also buy the audio version for a couple of books. And since the book is so long, I was like, well I’ll be getting a lot of value for my three dollars…

Friends, audiobooks are amazing.


All spring I’ve been wrestling with conflicting desires. On the one hand, during the afternoons I usually read. But on the other hand, the weather has been so amazing that I want to take walks. With the audiobook, the Gordian knot has been cut. I can walk and read at the same time.

I had always been frustrated at the slow speed of audio books. The voice speaks at maybe 100-200 words per minute, whereas I can read at around 400-600 words per minute. That means that while an audiobook for a typical novel might be 13 hours long, I could probably finish that book in three to four hours if I was reading.

But the upside of the slow speed is that you can listen to an audiobook even while doing other things!

There are limits of course. If I started browsing the internet or conversing with another person, I rapidly lost track of what was going on. But if I was just walking around? I had no trouble keeping track! I even went into Walgreens and spent a long time buying a thermos (I was seeing which one was the most leak-proof!) and had relatively little trouble keeping track of the book.

I guess the human mind is, like, designed to pay attention to human voices or something. I’d always thought it might be difficult, especially in a densely written or less plotted book, to follow along, but it’s really not. Action, descriptions, dialogue, and internal narration are all equally comprehensible. The actor in this one is actually really good. He does the characters in different voices, so you can make out, simply by his intonation, who is speaking (which is good, because A Little Life has an aggravating stylistic quirk: the viewpoint character is almost always referred to as ‘he,’ with no clear antecedent. Which leads to sentences like, “He shot him in the chest,” where the antecedent changes right in the middle of the sentence!

But the other amazing thing is that Amazon has this integration between the audio and the textual version of the book, so you can switch seamlessly between the two. It is amazing! All you need to do is open the Kindle app and download the audio companion. Then when you press play, it’ll start reading from whatever page you’re on. You can pause the book, read for however long, and then start the narration again.

Without this feature, I don’t think I could use audiobooks. I mean the audio version of A Little Life is 33 hours long. I could read the physical book, I’m fairly certain, in less than fifteen. Although audiobook does allow me to convert interstitial time, when I’d otherwise be walking or driving, into reading time, it could also potentially reduce efficiency if I ended up listening (at 1/3rd my reading speed) during what could have otherwise been sit-down reading time. Some people I know have dual-track reading lives. They read a paper book when they’re at home, and they listen to an audio book when they’re out and about, and they’re okay switching. I don’t think I could do that. I just get wrapped up in a book. I want to know what’s happening next!

Now the only annoying thing is that this further increases the divide between ebooks and paper. I have some books for which I have paper versions (often my friends books), but I obviously can’t integrate them with the audio versions.

Someday I imagine you’ll be able to buy books in comprehensive packages: paper, ebook, and audio, all discounted. This already sort of exists, with the Kindle Matchbook program (where they give you discounted Kindle versions of print books you’ve bought from Amazon), but since I don’t often buy print books from Amazon (I usually buy them from brick and mortar bookstores), this doesn’t really help me.

So I guess what I’m saying is that this is yet another way in which Amazon has got its hooks into me.

Comments (



  1. davidperlmutter1

    I’d read my own stuff for an audio book if anyone asked me to. The only way it sounds authentic to me is if the actual author does it. Regardless of who they are.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hmm, that’s not a problem for me. I haven’t heard enough audiobooks to have a theory on what I want in a narrator, but this book is by a woman and the narrator is a man, and it still works.