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.

Graphic Audio

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.

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59 Comments

  1. aadeen
    2

    I find audio books great for keeping up with my ‘reading’.

  2. tillzer
    1

    I really enjoy ‘reading’ while looking out the window on train journeys, walking to work, running for fitness, eating lunch with both hands, and doing housework. I do find any books which deal with a statistics best shown in a chart, a lot of people or characters which you would like to refer to where they were introduced, or ones where the author has come up with short hand labels can be tricky.

  3. mitchell
    1

    I developed ME 25 years ago and turned from an avid reader to someone who couldn’t concentrate enough to read a few pages.

    Audio books on CD from the county library service became the answer. The problem was lack of choice and the shocking state that many of the CDs were in, some unplayable.

    As my health improved I stayed with the format and I found that listening in the car seemed to help my concentration, perverse as that might sound.

    The coming of Audible with its now enormous library of titles and simplicity of use was a big step forward. Even with VAT audio books, which are forever available in the Audible cloud are much cheaper than the printed version and a good reader enhances the experience, especially if he or she is also the author, although that only happens infrequently.

    I’m definitely a fan.

  4. DayNightise
    1

    I love my Audible app. I listen to about 35-40 books a year on my long drives each day. With Audible you can sample to check the narrator and if you really can’t get on with the book you can return it and choose another. Brilliant.!

  5. tho0
    1

    I use audiobooks to cure insomnia, stops the mind racing when awake in the small hours.

    • Zohal99

      That’s great to hear. Audiobooks can be really calming in that way I’ve found. 🙂

  6. myrtis
    1

    Two really interesting audiobooks to listen to and compare:
    1. 100 days of sodom by Marquis De Sade
    compared with:
    2. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
    They make for easier listening than reading because both require some distance while experiencing their capacity for hypnotic impact on the psyche.

    Both books were written by incarcerated men with messianic complexes.
    Both books capture a patternated rhythm of encantated psychotic mania, one which elevates depraved rumination into a work of literature and the other which became one of the most horrifying portents of collective mass murder the world has ever seen.

    • Zohal99

      I’m currently very slowly making my way through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer which is the popular definitive account of World War II and I’m up to a section that is about Mein Kampf. It’s crazy that the work was a blueprint for what came to be because of him years after its publication.

      Really interesting audiobook selections to compare with one another.

    • snake
      0

      Mmm, just a bit of light bedtime listening, then. I couldn’t finish the De Sade book – too harrowing.

  7. Angel
    1

    Would be interested to see the completion stats for actual books or e-books – it seems pretty pathetic that you only need to listen to these and still lots of people don’t get to the end.

    • Tobin
      1

      A bad narrator can make a good book completely unlistenable though.

    • Zohal99

      The good thing with platforms like Audible is if you don’t like an audiobook you can return it for another, no questions asked. 🙂 Plus they have a nice review system so you usually have a good idea of whether you’ll like an audiobook or not. I’m pretty selective with my choices with audiobooks so I finish majority of the ones I start.

      To be honest, you can usually tell in the first half-an-hour if it will be bearable or not for the most part.

  8. Well put! Audiobooks–storytelling. I have yet to fully jump on the audiobook train because I listen to a lot of, like, background noise through a lot of my day, but that hardly means I’m focused and I like to focus on a story, but this article has definitely tugged at my intrigue. I tend to favor the idea of reading a book more so than listening to a book (or, following along with the narration while actually looking at the text) because, I guess, I like to be visually stimulated and /see/ what the author did. But, listening to a good story sounds nice in theory. I may give it a try with one of your recommendations.

    • Zohal99

      I’m glad to hear the article has intrigued you :). Do let me know if any end up piquing your interest or working for you. I’ve found rereads are a good way to start to get used to hearing a story without worrying that you’ll miss out on important details.

  9. I agree that audiobooks can help you read something you otherwise wouldn’t. I loved Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and when I discovered the rest of the series, I was really excited. I listened to the second book in the series, Speaker for the Dead, on my way to work. There were a lot of Portuguese names and words in the story and it was really helpful to hear someone pronounce them. When read the physical book later on, the audiobook gave me the skills to read the names. Also, the book can be very tedious. By listening to it in an audio format I was better able to focus.

    • Zohal99

      Totally agree! Audiobooks are a saviour for learning to pronounce names although sometimes if I reread something via audio, I get put off when they pronounce names differently to how I thought them to be pronounced.

  10. HASSAN
    1

    Naxos audiobooks have recorded some outstanding performances. Their versions of James Joyce’s Ulysses came as a revelation to me, who struggled with the printed version. And the recording of Kipling’s Kim is quite simply wonderful.

    Also, a shout for Stephen Fry’s superb performance of the Harry Potter books, quite simply wonderful.

    • Zohal99

      The Harry Potter audiobooks are so amazing. They’re the only ones that I can listen to on double speed without getting confused with what is happening;. Simply magical! 🙂

  11. Creek
    1

    Good narrators make all the difference. Simon Vance is very good. I can recommend his unabridged version of The Count of Montecristo and any of the James Bond books. They have more depth than you’d imagine based on the films, though their social politics are of their time. Sherlock Holmes is good fun too.

    • TrulyMak
      0

      Simon Vance is excellent, agreed. It was a joy to listen to him narrating the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. They are packaged in in 4 downloads from Audible, each of 3 volumes. Each downloaded “book” runs to about 20 hours, so great value for money.

      I’ve tried and failed to read the books a few times over the years, but it took the Vance audio versions to get me to the end.

  12. thomas
    1

    I tend to enjoy non-fictiopn audiobooks rather than fiction, as with the latter the narrator’s character voices often disappoint. Honourable exception for fiction is Colin Mace who got the characters in Peter V Brett’s The Core exactly right.

    Non-fiction wise, Robertson Dean’s narration for Richard Rhodes history of atomic weaponry books is great and suitably grave, David Timpson’s narration of Andrew Marr’s history books makes for an informative listen, Bill Bryson reading and and all of his own works (I’ll take Bryson reading his own abridged work over anyone else reading unabridged) and Derek Perkin’s readings of Yuval Noah Harari’s books are all recommended.

    Pick the right books & narrators and the £7.99 a month for Audible can be fantastic value. Find authors or topics that appeal, check out the 5 min previews for narrator ‘agreeability’ and off you go. I forgot my headphones at work today and my daily lunchtime walk just wasn’t the same without a chapter of my latest audiobook to listen to.

    • Zohal99

      So many good non-fiction recommendations that I’ll have to check out 🙂

  13. hector
    1

    The quality of an audiobook is not just the story but the way it is read. Listen to the Godfather with an Italian American accent and the experience is amazing!

  14. Wen Ma
    1

    The Trespasser by Tana French is fantastic. Such a compelling character and voice.

  15. Eleni
    1

    I think the choice of narrator is very important.

  16. SaraiMW

    An interesting discussion. I have also noticed that I have particular preferences for audiobooks, and that it is the ones often centered on the storytelling style. Meaning that if the story is a true narrative, in the sense that it is written in a strongly oral form, in the light of original folktales and myth, it then translates well to audio book. Literary classics where word selection was a vital component of the act of writing, as mentioned Pride and Prejudice, tends to translate very dryly when read aloud. Finally, I have noticed that poor writing, as in high action, strong reliance on first person pov and little descriptive thought (popcorn literature) are terrible as audiobooks.
    Also I must say I agree with Eleni (above) that the narrator is very important. I have turned off books because of the narration, and I can get drawn in with not just great narration, but appropriate narration – for example I found a great Sookie Stackhouse novel with a southern narrator and this became very immersive for me.
    Thank you for sharing.

  17. Non-fiction books narrated by the actual author – in most cases – tend to be a lot more engaging. Tone and emphasis matter. The author can nail this sort of “ultratext” content in a uniquely authentic way. Fiction’s different. It’s a created world so why not bring audiobook closer to performance if it makes the experience of listening more immersive and profound?

  18. I think autobiographies and collections of personal essays are places where audiobook are necessary and often better than reading a physical book. I listen again and again and again to every Nora Ephron book and I enjoy so much every time because I can hear her words in her voice.

  19. tclaytor

    A very thorough discussion on audiobooks! As a teacher myself, I have always encouraged students to listen to books if that works for them. I love them personally though I’ve discovered non-fiction works best for me. I listen to them when I’m working out or on long drives. It is awesome! I don’t like listening to fiction books because I tend to get really intense when I’m reading something I love and I can’t put it down and speed up my reading. I can’t listen to books that long (I do have to talk to people eventually) so I prefer non-fiction which is enjoyable but easier to put down!

  20. I agree with you on the Sherlock Holmes audiobooks, Stephen Fry is great but I just couldn’t get into the story. I also found this with A Game of Thrones, it was a better experience for me to read the books on my own rather than the audiobook because I didn’t like the way the narrator voiced the characters.

    I recently found radio shows of some of Neil Gaiman’s books, The Anasi Boys and Neverwhere. The characters were voiced by well known actors and it had sound effects and all that, I loved these just as much as the books.

    I think for me with audiobooks it depends on the genre and who is narrating them. I haven’t given up on them yet so I’ll keep trying out different ones.

  21. KIAN
    1

    The help is brilliant on audible. Have listened to it multiples times when I can’t sleep. The narrator has the most soothing voice. I much prefer the book audible book to the film. I listen to audible doing house work, shopping, driving on walks etc makes “reading “ so much more accessible.

    • Kiana
      0

      Just finished The Help. I agree – excellent in every way – the readers are outstanding.

  22. Kisha
    1

    Danny Baker‘s autobiographies are brilliant audiobooks

  23. jamie
    1

    I found Irvine Welsh reading his own books make time fly on long drives. Only driving alone though, my wife can’t stand him.

  24. Kish
    1

    My top audiobook tip, when buying pop science books to listen to while driving, double check that they don’t come with PDFs of diagrams, graphs etc!

    • Zohal99

      That’s similar to some Lecture series I have listened to on Audible where they come with pdfs of additional learning material. It’s awesome 🙂

  25. Phipps
    1

    Epic poetry works really well on audiobook. Have really enjoyed Paradise Lost, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Prelude, Gawain and the Green Knight, Under Milk Wood (last one not really epic poem, but same difference) while walking the dog, when I’d never have ploughed through the books. Being read out loud seems to really suit them.

  26. Yvonne T.

    One thing that would be nice to mention is that not only do audiobooks make reading easier for some people, they also help those with disabilities or who are at a disadvantage (e.g., not being able to see or other reading comprehension problems).

    • Zohal99

      Ah yes! Accessibility of storytelling is a huge benefit of audiobooks. 🙂

  27. PiMann

    I can finish an audio book much faster than a text book, however my attention to the content decreases. Narration is an important factor too. It can highly affect our emotions as the reader of the book. Some books get narrated or translated by more than one narrator.

  28. Teddy
    1

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
    Narrator: Ron McLarty.
    Great fun.

  29. Although I’ve never listened to an audio book myself, this article has motivated me to get through some of my studies with audio books. Some of the great literary pieces are 400 pages too long for me. I know audio books helped my brother a lot throughout high school given he is dyslexic.

  30. Article turned out great!

  31. I love listening to an audio book in the car, but I don’t consider that reading. For me, it’s a different physical and mental activity to actually read the words on a page than listen in an auditory fashion. I think the best is when it’s a combo of reading a book and then hearing the author do the audio book (like David Sedaris- it brings the book to another whole level of hilarity).

  32. Interesting article. I think listening to things like audiobooks helps one develope the skills of building an internal picture and/or structure of whatever piece you’re listening to. From an early age i listened to many BBC Radio comedies from the 50s and 60s (predominantly Hancock’s Half Hour) and found several benefits in doing so. Literacy and focussed attention are both strong and i feel it helps with not only imagination but also reading situations of the world around you, you can actually ‘see’ so much better as a result. Of course, all this is true if you actually listen and not dip in and out of things – even still it beats television hands down.

  33. ambermakx

    I have always thought audiobooks were for the lazy type but after reading this I feel a new sense of excitement with them and I need to try it out for myself.

  34. Audiobooks, films, TV, the internet, and other forms of media are used for learning and to convey information as well. Therefore, audiobooks is another media that is used by people to learn new information and to enjoy stories. Besides Plato at some point in his life argued that books and any written will decay the souls of men. The same principle can be applied to audiobooks. There is no doubt that reading is good for you and you will learn a great deal and be exposed to other worlds and ideas. However, TV has been called a bad habit, at least from my parents. And yet it TV, is used as another source for learning, enjoying stories, ideas, and facts. Again audiobooks is another source for learning and this idea that audiobooks are not good for learning or enjoying stories will pass. Audiobooks is another learning and enjoying stories. And besides, sometimes you need to catch up with your reading while driving to work, or on a road trip.

  35. Neil Gaiman’s Norse mythology captures eloquently audio immersion. Transportation between the passive role of listener and the active role of the participant has never been easier as Neil places you directly in Asgard

  36. Thank you for this excellent article! I’m looking forward to listening to several of the audiobooks you recommended. While I will always love sitting down with a solid book and iced drink, an audiobook is an excellent way to keep my mind stimulated while eating or commuting. One that I found particularly engaging was the Audible exclusive by Ben Croshaw, “Differently Morphous.” It’s a witty political satire about beings from alternate dimensions trying to integrate into modern life. It really showed me what’s possible with the audiobook medium with excellent sound design and snappy narration by the author himself.

  37. Personally I think it all depends on whether you are more of an auditory learner or visual learner. This can influence how you enjoy things such as reading. I enjoy reading and don’t get much out of audio books. It’s hard to picture things while I’m listening and doing other things but I see how others can find it more convenient and entertaining. All in all I enjoy this article. Great points!

  38. Audiobooks on a long drive, usually of books I was interested in but not really planning to read are a way to think about how they complement reading.

  39. I like that you can add inflections via audiobook, perhaps lending otherwise lost context to a line or passage, but for me, nothing will ever beat the smell of paper and ink and the joy of getting so lost in written words that everything else fades away.

  40. Audiobooks are reliable these days especially in the 21st century but never forget the feelingg of reading a physical book. The experience is still different in the old days so don’t set it aside, we need to learn to balance it instead.

  41. Pamela Maria

    Great article and thanks for the recommendations 🙂 I definitely think audiobooks are a plus when it comes to long commutes or travel. People who suffer from motion sickness may find audiobooks soothing. Since audiobooks to dabble in the realm of podcasts, they’re great for gathering information or relaxing during long work commutes.

  42. Zohal99

    I definitely agree! 🙂 I would never want a world without physical books. A mix is always good.

  43. Thank you for including your audio book recommendations, it was a really nice touch.
    I particularly like audio books that are read by the authors and I too find that I struggle to follow the plot lines of fiction stories on long journeys.

  44. I think each form has benefits. Audio books are great for ‘reading’ when you technically don’t have time or can’t physically read (driving, walking, running errands etc.), while traditional books are great for when you set aside time to read and want to have the full ‘experience’ of reading.

  45. Great points! I’m a person who struggles with finding enjoyment in audiobooks because I’m extremely picky when it comes to the voice of the narrator, so I always appreciate recommendations!

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