Sunday, 12 May 2013

Audiobooks — a re-appraisal

I haven’t had much experience with audiobooks. When I was a teenager, I read a few favourite Star Trek novels onto stacks of audio tapes so I could listen to them while lying in the dark, instead of having to have a light on to read by. I hated lights.

The first professionally produced audiobooks I tried were years later—combinations of favourite books and performers like John Cleese reading The Screwtape Letters and Douglas Adams reading his own Last Chance to See. These were enjoyable as novelties.

I’ve also enjoyed various spoken-word productions like the original radio series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the BBC’s audio-only releases of various 1960s Doctor Who episodes for which the video masters are long-since lost.

All of these encounters informed me of a couple of things: audiobooks are slow (very slow), and that audiobooks require almost my full attention.

Still, I have some friends who like this delivery mechanism very much, so when one of them pointed out that Audible were running a free book promotion (thanks, Lee!) I decided to see what audiobooks were like these days. I picked a book from close to the top of my Goodreads ‘to-read’ list, signed up to Audible, and downloaded Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

Here’s what I learned: audiobooks are slow (very slow), and audiobooks require almost my full attention.

I’ll review the novel itself over on Goodreads, but here are some thoughts on the audiobook experience.

The first thing I really liked was the narrator’s voice. Jonathan Davis presented the book with great clarity and at a pace that I thought suited the text. I thought his vocal interpretation really brought out the drama of the story, and that he differentiated the characters so effectively that I was never in doubt about who was speaking. I liked his delivery so much that it made me choose to stay with the normal speed of the book, despite the slowness being one of the things I like least about the format. The Audible app on the iPhone  let me increase the speed by up to three times, while adjusting the pitch to avoid any Chipmunk-like effect. I tried various speed settings over the course of a few chapters, but never liked the outcome. While the sped-up performance remained completely intelligible (even on 3× natural speed) I felt that even the lowest speed above natural (1.5×) significantly detracted from my enjoyment of Davis’ wonderful reading and I eventually completed the book at natural speed.

One interesting aspect of the performance was Davis’ use of accent. The Windup Girl is set in Thailand and almost all its characters are from different parts of Asia. When representing these characters, Davis uses a range of Asian-sounding accents, some of them quite strong. I have to admit that this sometimes seemed a lot like yellowfacing to me.

Being set in a part of the world quite unfamiliar to me and being a science-fiction novel, The Windup Girl contains many words and names I hadn’t heard before. Despite Davis’ great clarity, this meant that when looking up a few details of the book online, I discovered that I had occasionally misunderstood things. For example, a key (ha!) technology in the novel is the ‘kink-spring’, which I had heard as ‘king-spring’ throughout. Frequent mention is made of a fictional disease, cibiscosis, which I heard as the real disease, psittacosis.  And some of the character names were impossible for me to parse with any certainty.

One annoying characteristic of this format was the high chance of missing something—that the narration would keep running while I was distracted by something or had simply let my mind wander. Even now, there’s an absolutely key event in the novel which I can’t say if it happened on-stage or off-stage. I certainly have no memory of it happening, only of characters referring back to it. On the other hand, that kind of off-stage action is not a characteristic of the rest of the style of this novel and I strongly suspect that I simply missed it!

But really, the worst part of the audiobook experience for me was the opportunity cost. The only time in my day that I found to listen to the book was during my daily commute, which averages 30 minutes each way, five times a week. Previously, I had used this time to catch up on social media, read short articles online, and to listen to music. I found that I could not read on my phone while listening to the book, and I obviously couldn’t listen to music. The social media and other reading was replaceable at other times of the day, but I don’t have many other opportunities to listen to music, and I started really missing it.

So while I thought The Windup Girl was really well rendered as an audiobook, the experience of listening to it only confirmed for me that this is not a format for me. I will certainly be purchasing the ebook version of the novel at some point, to find out what I missed out on, and I don’t see myself listening to another audiobook anytime soon.

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