| July 12, 2010 4:13 pm

MicrophoneLast month (June 2010), was National Audio Book Month and all over the blogosphere, people were passionately declaring their love/appreciation of both the written and spoken word.  And all month, I intended to join in.

Really, I did.  I was going to publish reviews of several audiobooks (both good and bad); I was going to sing the praises of my favorite authors and ridicule those not up to snuff; and most importantly, I was going to explain how audiobooks helped my love of literature to survive college.

Unfortunately, life got in the way of these plans.  I was simply too busy to join the fray.  But, even though I may not be timely, I would still like to follow through with my plans.

Over the past ten years, I’ve become passionate about audiobooks.  They’ve transformed both the way that I read, and the expanded how I think about literature.  They’ve helped me to see old stories in a new light and find new authors that I would have never considered.  For that, I feel like I owe them something.

Thus, in the next few weeks, I will be publishing a protracted ode to audiobooks.  It will include several reviews, a list of authors/narrators that should not be missed, and a look at the importance of oral narratives.  But before plumbing those depths, I thought that I would first share my own story and explain how I became an an audiobook convert.

1.

I first discovered the joy of audio books when I was an undergraduate.  But though I’m now thoroughly addicted, I was not an instant convert.  Far from it, actually. My conversion as an audiophile took time, patience and a great deal of energy; but in the end, I’m tremendously grateful that it happened.  Because, if it weren’t for audiobooks, I’m not sure that my love of words (both spoken and written) would have survived my brush with higher education.

Even though I’ve always loved to read, something interesting happens when you enter college.  You discover that reading can be a lot like work. When I started the bioengineering program at the University of Utah, I found myself drowning in words.

I would wake up early to read the texts of the day and work the associated problems; and I would stay up late to do the same thing.  I filled every spare moment between classes with first the words of others and then my own, as I was forced to synthesize and analyze the material I was reading.

By the end of the first month, I was reading more than ever.  It should have been grand, and amazing.  Except it wasn’t.  Even though I was drowning in words, I didn’t find it fulfilling.  It was nearly all related to school, and a huge amount of it bored me. (There are only so many ways that you can “sex-up” the coagulation cascade.)

It was then that I discovered an eternal truth:  Nothing destroys the love of books faster than a forced reading regimen.

I then ran into one of the second great ironies of college.  While being forced to read things of marginal interest, I was discovering ideas that I wanted to consume but couldn’t find the time for.   To say that this was deeply frustrating would be a tremendous understatement, and I simply couldn’t find a solution to my problem.

It wasn’t until I began expressing my frustrations to an older friend/mentor (let’s call him Dick), that a way out appeared.  Being tremendously world-wise and experienced, Dick proposed a resolution.  And like any good fix, it was phrased as a question.  Dick asked me if I’d ever listened to an audiobook.

The short answer to Dick’s question was “No, I had not.”

Sure, I knew what audiobooks were; my grandparents loved them.  They would go for long drives and listen to westerns.  Or sit on the porch and listen to poetry.  In the right moments, they might even wax eloquent about narrators and how they could transform a story.  But I’d never really taken any of their talk seriously, because … well … that’s the sort of thing my grandparents enjoyed.

Now I was hearing another old person talk about how wonderful and amazing audiobooks were.  He stressed how they had allowed him to keep up with his professional responsibilities and personal reading.  He even pontificated about oral traditions and how stories are meant to be read aloud.  It was all very inspiring stuff, and, in the manner of all young people, I promptly blew him off.

It turns out, however, that Dick remembered our discussion; and that audiobook lovers are a bit like the Mormons.  If you let them into your life, they will smother you with kindness, interest and invitations until you give in to what they want.  After our initial conversation, I suddenly found audiobooks everywhere I looked.

Dick would forward me reviews (which were promptly deleted) loan me interesting reads (that were returned unopened), and otherwise drone endlessly about the brilliant book he was listening to.

I wasn’t having any of it, though.  Audiobooks were for kooks and old people, and that was that.

But even though I was determined not to capitulate, the position of defender is always one of defeat.  Rain will wear mountains to hills, oceans grind cliffs to sand, and cheerful persistence will overcome stubborn obstinacy. It is simply the way things are.  After months of work, Dick finally found something that would make me listen to an audiobook in its entirety.  He bought me a year long subscription to Audible.com.

2.

In case you’ve never heard of it before, Audible.com, is an online bookstore that sells audiobooks. In many ways, it’s similar to Amazon or Barnes and Noble; except that it only caters to audiophiles.   Yet even though there are similarities, Audible is much more than an online catalog of audiobooks.  It also offers also offers subscription plans, and it’s the subscription plans that change everything.

If that sounds strange, then you need to understand something.  These subscription plans aren’t like the half hearted attempts of Napster, or Rhapsody, or even the Zune Pass.  An Audible.com subscription is not some scheme designed to steal more money.  Oh, no.  If anything, they’re akin to a newspaper or magazine subscription.

Newspapers and magazines are smart.  They know that they offer a variable product.  Some editions of the publication will be superb.  They will resonate with the intended audience and provide both emotional validation and an intellectual high.  But not every release will be like that.  Other editions will contain little content of interest or fail to connect. This is to be expected.  No writer or editor, no matter how gifted, will always create content that speaks to the entirety of the readership.

For this reason, magazine publishers don’t really sell individual magazines to their readership.  Instead, they push subscriptions.

In fact, they go out of their way to make the decision to subscribe a no-brainer.  Many publishers will offer absurd discounts – far below the production cost of the publication – and provide access to other services.  They push package promotions and offer free gifts.  They send around sympathetic volunteers and hitch their subscription drives to worthwhile events.

In short, they’ll do anything that gets people to commit for the long haul.  They want to lock that reader in so that he sees not only one edition, but many. And in this way, they get to leverage the law of averages.  If the reader sticks around long enough, he’s bound to find something that will catch his interest, and then, he’s snared.

Which is the same reasoning behind the Audible subscriptions.  When Dick bought the subscription for me, he paid a total of $179 dollars for one year or about $15 per month.  For the money, I received twenty-four Audiobook credits that could be used to purchase any title in the Audible collection.  Each audiobook required one Audible credit.  Thus, I was paying about $7.50 per audiobook.  This was far below the publisher’s listed price of $25 to $45 dollars per program and in one case (a historical biography of Winston Churchill), the listed price on the Audible website was more than the entire price of the subscription.

This is what got through my obstinacy.  I was deaf to arguments of experience and quality; but when it came to old fashioned value, I was all ears.

3.

For this to make any sense, you need to understand something about me.  I have a pathological need to use the gifts of others.

To receive a gift and then allow it to collect dust doesn’t just feel wrong, it is wrong.  That gift was picked out with consideration and forethought. The least I can do is try and provide it with a life.  To do otherwise positively reeks of ingratitude. (Yes, I understand that this sounds pathological.)

So, naturally, I decided that I would suck every bit of value out of Dick’s gift.  I would listen to his audiobooks, and when the subscription was over, I would allow it to lapse.  Then, I could tell him  I had tried out audiobooks and found them wanting. I would then be free to reading misery and the land of complaints.

There was, however, one small problem with my logic.  I hadn’t taken into account that Audible was working with newspaper logic.  I wasn’t up against one unstoppable force, but two.  Crazy value and consistent exposure to addictive merchandise.  Ironically, it’s the same marketing model that crack dealers use to ensnare children.

Dick not only provided me with a subscription, but also a list of recommendations and he didn’t pull any punches.  His list was loaded with both amazing authors and exceptional narrators. This wasn’t by accident.

An audiobook, due to its nature, shares more in common with a television show, movie, or radio drama than a book.  It isn’t just the writing that makes the experience, but also the performance.  A gifted narrator makes the work become as large and vivid as if on a movie screen.  They recreate whole worlds; the sounds, the sights, the people, everything!  The characters are transformed from ink and paper into living and breathing people.

Conversely, a narrator can also destroy a story.  If the voice is annoying, or it doesn’t fit the prose, the entire experience is ruined, and it can be very hard to recover.  When I first listened to Anathem, for example, the narrator didn’t fit the story.  He had a nasal tone to his voice that I found annoying, and never really warmed up to.  As a result, I was more than happy to dismiss Neal Stephenson as an author; that is to say, until I went back and inspected a printed copy of the book.

Of course, Dick had no intention of allowing me to fall into that trap.  He loaded my reading list with the absolute best: Nigel Planar reading Terry Pratchett, Frank Muller reading Stephen King, and several titles read by Barbara Rosenblat.

Using Dick’s list, I selected two books that looked interesting: “The Drawing of the Three” and “The Waste Lands”, books two and three in “The Dark Tower” series by Steven King.  I had just finished reading “The Gunslinger” and had thoroughly enjoyed it.  But even though I knew Steven King as a competent writer, I was completely unprepared to hear Frank Muller read him aloud.

It was a day in late October.  The night before, it had snowed and the roads were covered in an awful slush  equal parts cold and wet.  Traffic on the freeway was impossible because the snow had resulted in slide-offs and pile-ups, and I spent nearly four hours at a stand-still.

I simply did not care.

I was far too engaged in the stories of Roland Deschain, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes.  When I (finally) arrived at the university, I turned of the car engine and simply sat, listening in rapt attention for another hour.  It was only when I had to attend class for an exam that I paused the book and got out of the car.

And that was when the world changed.  Everything I’d heard about audiobooks was true (not that my grandparents, or Dick would ever hear me say it).  They could transform a story and make you see old literature in a new light.  More important than that, though, Dick had given me a solution to my problem.

Audiobooks provided me a way to read things that I wanted to read.    Listening to an audiobook left the hands and eyes free to do other things which meant that I could “read” while driving, working in the yard, or exercising.  Thus, while my days might have been filled with texts covering the formation of biomembranes and medical device regulatory processes, my nights were filled by Stephen King, historical tomes, philosophical treatises, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett.  Audiobooks had successfully broken the back of my forced reading regimen, and I was happy.

Nor have things changed much since then.  Even now, I always have an audiobook close at hand (usually in the form of an iPod) and I consider Audible to be one of those amenities that I will not live without.  So, even though it’s a decade late …

Thanks Dick.  Forcing me into audiobooks was probably one of the best things you ever did for me.

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