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I’ve been thinking about audiobooks a lot lately. Probably because I’ve been listening to audiobooks a lot lately.

Now that I’m working full time and have cable again for the first time in almost ten years, I find I have less time for reading. I think the three years of graduate school, with two of those years spent reading everything I could find on gender and technology, wore out my eyes and whatever sends the happy waves from book page to my brain. I’ve also found it to be very difficult to read with a puppy face between your face and the book. I also just really like having people read to me. As much as I love David Sedaris’ and Sarah Vowell’s writing, I always get their books in audiobook format because they are so entertaining, and I love it when authors read their own books.

My first audiobook experience was about ten years ago – The Fountainhead on 26 cassettes. I had tried four times to read The Fountainhead prior to getting it on audiobook. I just could NOT get past Toohey’s first 15-page speech. (Note, if my high school psychology teacher happens to be reading this, I’m sorry, I tried, I read some of it, and wrote a good paper (and I’m pretty sure I got an A on it). Plus, I’ve read it five times since then, so thanks for planting those seeds of learning!) I was hooked on the audiobook after the first side of the first tape. I listened to it on the drive to work, on lunch breaks, and when I got home. I would sit in my room next to my stereo ignoring my roommates. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was like my very own soap opera, or “my story” as Granny would say.

I’ve continued this trend, I often use audiobooks to help me get through books that I have to read, but can’t force myself through in text form. I recently listened to Freakonomics, I didn’t really WANT to read Freakonomics, but the students I work with are all reading it and choosing research topics based on issues discussed in the book. I figured that as I am supposed to teach them how to use library resources to find information for these projects, then it would be helpful for me to know what they’ve been learning. I didn’t feel like I needed to read the entire book cover to cover and take notes, instead I just wanted to scan it – my solution – distracted audiobooking. By committing to distracted audiobooking I was able to listen to the book while cleaning, walking my dog, eating, driving and surfing the Internet. I don’t know if you’ve tried recently, but it’s really hard to surf the Internet and answer emails while reading a book. Please, don’t try reading and driving! This was a great way for me to get a basic understanding of the students’ work without a lot of effort on my part. Now when a student says they want to write a paper on ‘drug dealers living at home,’ I know what they are talking about and am able to help them tease out the issues that make up this discussion and help them find one to write about.

I don’t listen to all of my audiobooks while distracted. I do often clean or walk the dog, but during the really good parts, I find myself sitting down and holding my breath. Last week I was walking Oliver when a guy with an adorable puppy started talking to me. He was nice and we talked about raising puppies and how great the park is. However, all I kept thinking was “OH MY GOD WE ARE FINALLY LEARNING WHY WILLOUGHBY WAS SUCH A JERK TO MARIANNE! CAN YOU CURB THE PUPPY CHAT, PLEASE?!” Now, I know most of you probably read Sense and Sensibility 15 years ago, but I am new to Jane Austen. I forced myself to read Emma last year, and on the 5th try I actually made it through. This time, I committed to reading it for book club and checked out both the audiobook and the paperback determined to get through. I could not put this down/press pause. Having both formats was amazing. I would read it on the bus in the morning, listen to it on my iPod while walking to my office or to lunch, read on the bus on the way home, then listening while making dinner and dog walking. I was able to engage with the story for hours each day. Fantastic.

One of the things that really struck me is how different the two experiences were. Reading was more slow and less dramatic. I would also get hung up on words or phrases while reading which rarely happened while listening. For example, while listening to the audiobook, this sentence came up in Chapter 38: “And for my part, I was all in a fright for fear your sister should ask us for the huswifes she had given us a day or two before; but, however, nothing was said about them, and I took care to keep mine out of sight.” I had no idea what “huswives” meant, but I didn’t have the text so I didn’t have the footnotes, and I wasn’t near my desk OED or the Internet version I have thanks to my university affiliation. (Seriously, the OED online is reason enough to consider a career in academia.) Since I had no way to look it up, and because the voice actor does not slow down or stop when she reads a word I don’t know, I had to keep going. All I knew is that it was something that they were given as a gift that they didn’t want to give back, and that was enough to understand the meaning, and I don’t feel like I lost anything. Later, I went to my paper copy, located the sentence and saw the word was tagged with an endnote. I flipped through the back of the book and found it after a bit of difficulty, I then learned that a huswive is a needle book. When I stop to read an endnote or a footnote I feel like I am being ripped from the story. This is the primary reason I haven’t been able to read Garrison Kellior’s footnote-laden Lake Wobegon Days. So, for someone like me who gets distracted by footnotes and sees them as a chance to do more research and learn more things RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT – audiobooks are a great way to keep me focused and involved with the story while exercising my ability to decipher meaning from context clues.

(One notable exception is The Annotated Alice, which is amazing and wonderful. Yes, you will go down many many footnotes side roads, but if you like Alice in Wonderland, I bet you’re the type that likes to take the scenic route.)

Works mentioned in this post:

Carroll, L., & Gardner, M. (1960). The annotated Alice: Alice’s adventures in Wonderland & Through the looking glass. New York: C.N. Potter.

Keillor, G. (1985). Lake Wobegon days. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Rand, A., & Reading, K. The Fountainhead. New York, NY: Random House.

Recent “Reads”:

Austen, J., & Badel, S. (1986). Sense and sensibility. Auburn, CA: Audio Partners.

Levitt, S. D., & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: HarperAudio.

Next up:

Bazell, J., & Petkoff, R. (2009). Beat the reaper A novel. New York: Hachette Audio. (Recommendation from NPR Reads)

Castle, R., & Heller, J. (2009). Heat wave. [Old Saybrook, Conn.]: Tantor Audio. (A fake book by a fake author played by an adorable actor? Yes, please!)

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink [the power of thinking without thinking]. New York, NY: Time Warner AudioBooks. (For book club)

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