Audiobooks: Do they Enhance or Diminish the Enjoyment of a Story?
In our media saturated world, we are consumers in everyday life. Recently, audiobooks and similar mediums such as podcasts which are not new inventions have re-emerged with popularity.
In April 2017, I immersed myself in the world of audiobooks and quite frankly reading has never been the same. I want to put aside the tireless argument that listening to a book is not ‘reading’, and instead focus on how the audiobook medium either enhances or diminishes our enjoyment of the story’s content.
Some stories work better as an audiobook
There are some stories that I have picked up physically not once, not twice, but three times only to find myself trudging through the book, unable to make any progress. One example is The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. I put this book down three chapters in, three times. There was nothing wrong per se with the story, but I could not click with it or draw any interest with the characters. The Raven Boys is a character and setting driven book, relying on its atmosphere and slow-burn plot to keep a reader’s interest. This was not for me.
However, I then discovered audiobooks through my library’s Overdrive app. One of the audiobooks featured was The Raven Boys. I had no idea what to expect, so I clicked download, put in my earphones and hit play. The only way to describe what followed was bliss. Suddenly, I was transported into the Virginia setting with our eccentric cast of characters. I owe this partially to the narrator Will Patton. His voice was low, gravelly with very subtle changes to narrate our characters. He perfectly embodied the novel’s atmosphere, which to be honest reminded me of the Fall season.
I then devoured the rest of the series via audio – The Raven Cycle. Without audiobooks, to be blunt, I would never have read these books. The passion that was missing from my physical attempts to read disappeared when listening to the story. I use this example to illustrate that there are audiobooks out there where a narrator’s delivery of the story can enhance the plot and bring out more of the characters. Through audiobooks, stories can be given second chances instead of potentially being buried.
I find that the reason for this comes down to capturing our attention. If a book has a slow pace, reading it may feel like a chore especially if you are not used to slower reads. By having a narrator capture the character voices and inject a sense of magic into the story, this can actually propel the book and make the story feel faster in pace and thus more enjoyable.
Audiobooks can have the opposite effect too
Of course, audiobooks can also potentially diminish the enjoyment of a story as opposed to physically reading the book. This can either be because the narrator does a poor job, in your view, of telling the story or because the written content is not up to par with what you expect it to be. There is nothing worse than a narrator who ruins character voices, either by using a high-pitched, screechy voice for a female character or by voicing a character as though they were a child and not an adult.
Personally, an audiobook that I did not enjoy was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I listened to the audiobook version that is narrated by Rosamund Pike. So many people love her narration of the beloved classic, but I found it irritating. The female voices felt ridiculously high-pitched and the male voices were too deep in tone for me. It also did not help that I was not a fan of the story either. This particular audiobook experience taught me a few things. The first is that audiobooks can ruin the experience of a story. The second is realizing how nuanced the consumption of stories can be. I had the unpopular opinion of disliking a popular classic and a popular audiobook.
The other category of not enjoying an audiobook is where even though a narrator is amazing, you cannot get through the audiobook because the story is not compelling enough. For example, I listened to the first Sherlock Holmes story in the Sherlock Holmes Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Audible. The collection is narrated by Stephen Fry. His narration was impeccable, but I found the stories so dull that I could not stay solely for the narration. Yet another example where I didn’t enjoy a classic, which reinforced to me how story consumption is so nuanced. On the other side, there might be audiobooks that you absolutely loved, except they might have less than stellar reviews on Audible.
The Immersion Experience
Aside from the narration component of audiobooks, the immersion experience can be impacted based on an individual’s personal taste. For example, my older sister who recently became obsessed with listening to audiobooks on her long car rides discovered that she could not focus on fictional works. The first fictional audiobook that she tried was IT by Stephen King. She did not have a problem with the narrator, but rather found it difficult to follow the story-line.
A reason for this lack of immersion can be that we have grown accustomed to learning to read on our own and that storytelling morphed into a private hobby in a way. Although many of us were read to as kids, often the goal along the way was to get us reading independently. Thus, it can be jarring especially on your first try with fiction to hear someone else telling you the story. On the other hand, my sister has found that non-fiction works, particularly self-help books and memoirs are easier to follow. In her case, fiction works require time to sit down and focus on the intricate story details whereas non-fiction books, which are already grounded in our world, become easier to consume in an audio format.
As I have discussed, the realm of audiobooks is a beautiful albeit treacherous one as we all have genres that we do and do not enjoy in their various mediums. I am not a fan of a lot of history non-fiction audiobooks, as despite the good narration, I need to sit down and physically read and comprehend the historical details. This is difficult to do when you’re listening to the book, as often you do not want to rewind or pause to figure details out.
Personally, I came to realize from my audiobook experiences that for an audiobook to be immersive, I needed to feel that there was both strongly written content and a good narrator. Sometimes I would also want the story to be easy to follow. By extension, there can also be a difference between a good audiobook and an audiobook that blows it out of the park. Examples of amazing audiobooks include full cast audiobooks, graphic audio and more.
Full Cast Audiobooks
There are some audiobooks out there where there are numerous narrators that tell the story. These are my favourite audiobooks because they are the closest you can get to a film in your mind; especially when the audiobook has sound effects. I have two examples of full-cast audiobooks that are excellent. Both examples are science-fiction trilogies.
The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
This science-fiction trilogy follows a set of characters who set out to expose to the galaxies a war-crime on an illegal mining colony, that a corporation is trying to cover up. The first book is called Illuminae. This is a young adult series that is action-packed and heavy in terms of the themes it covers. The unique part of this series is that the story is told through a dossier of files. The story, in its physical format, is told through interviews, transcripts of surveillance footage, instant messages, handwritten notes and more. It is visually pleasing, but the audiobook enhances the story further. The audiobook includes a full cast of narrators as well as sound effects. In this case, the best experience is to read and listen simultaneously. This is because the physical format is very visual, and you actually miss out on parts if you only listen to the audiobooks or vice versa.
The Themis Files by Sylvain Neuvel
This science-fiction trilogy starts when a young girl discovers a giant metallic hand in a pit. Soon, other parts of this gigantic body appear across the world, and we follow a set of characters as they try to uncover what these body parts are and why they are on Earth. The first book is called Sleeping Giants. For this trilogy, I read the first book and then listened to book two and three. I vastly prefer the audiobooks. With this series, the audiobook is told through personal notes, transcripts of footage, but mainly through interviews. I enjoyed Sleeping Giants, but I felt emotionally disconnected from the characters because of the format, whereas the audiobooks with the full cast of narrators brought the characters to life, adding to my enjoyment of the series. These audiobooks also include sound effects which is a plus.
Through a close relative, I recently discovered the audiobook publishing company Graphic Audio. They publish full cast dramatized audiobooks such as ‘The Stormlight Archive’ series by Brandon Sanderson and their company tagline is ‘A movie in your mind’. The focus on the main element of audiobooks, escapism and entertainment, is brought to life through this company. It is a unique form of storytelling in the audiobook realm. Although, I have never tried out the company’s audiobooks because I find the prices to be very expensive.
Of course, full cast and dramatized audiobooks are not the only arbiters of beautiful storytelling. I have found some amazing memoirs, non-fiction and fantasy stories through audiobooks as well, a few of which I have listed below for you to check out.
More Audiobook Recommendations
1. Not my Father’s Son by Alan Cumming (narrated by the author)
2. Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown (narrated by the author)
3. What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (narrated by the author)
4. The Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling (narrated by Stephen Fry for the UK edition, Jim Dale for the US edition)
5. The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading)
6. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (narrated by the author)
The beauty of memoirs is that having a true story narrated by the author themselves creates an intimate connection between the reader and the writer. You suddenly feel as though you know the person in reality. By breaking the barrier between the reader and the writer, a new storytelling experience emerges; one that I feel is not there as strongly when you read the book on your own. In terms of fantasy stories, having a charismatic narrator tell an impressive story full of witches, magic, mayhem and more brings a reader back to the days when they would be read to as a child. It brings back the pure essence of storytelling; escapism.
One day as I was scrolling through various Goodreads reviews for The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, I found a review by acclaimed fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. It is a charming story about how this was the first audiobook that his son fell in love with, as they listened to the story on long car trips. He talks about how usually his son is not a fan of the story being told out loud, but that this story and Neil Gaiman’s narration clicked. His son was able to picture the story in his head, which after all is the most important part of storytelling.
All of a sudden, your long commutes are not just filled with scenery to occupy yourself with. Now, you can engage in an intimate experience with an author’s personal story, or you can be transported to a fantasy world or science-fiction world. Your imagination knows no bounds with audiobooks. I find that it brings back that little bit of magic that we forget to see in the world when we begin to navigate the world of adulthood.
At its heart, audiobooks are like any other story medium. Audiobooks are about storytelling and we all know that storytelling is not composed of the medium in a vacuum. Storytelling is well-written content plus the medium. The emphasis is on the fact that the content comes first, and as consumers we prefer different mediums based on the content and our personal tastes.
What do you think? Leave a comment.