An Audible Grasp

  • By Tara Laskowski
  • April 30, 2018

Yes, listening to books counts as reading.

An Audible Grasp

Here's a confession: I listen more to books than I read them.

My husband, Art, reads aloud to me most nights. We are currently tackling Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories and the occasional H.P. Lovecraft story. We don’t watch much television, but we do work our way through some hefty books.

In addition, after I changed jobs last summer, I signed up for Audible. Previously, I commuted to work via train and had plenty of time to read the old-fashioned way. But given that it’s hard and dangerous to flip pages while navigating Beltway traffic, the only way I could find to get in decent (and safe) reading time is through audiobooks.

There are differences in my experience listening to a book as opposed to reading it. It takes longer, for one — or seems to, anyway, for my brain can more quickly skim paragraphs and descriptions than a narrator can speak the words. I am more impatient and choosy of my audiobooks than I am of the books I physically read.

But, at its core, it feels quite the same to me. In his insightful essay, “Do Audio Books Count as Reading?” James Tate Hill discusses the first time he listened to a book on tape:

“Not long into the first story, the author’s words became louder than the voice reading them.” Later, he adds, “Sooner or later, the voice in my ears ceases to be a voice. It becomes the words, the words become sentences, and the sentences become the story. At some point, the voice in my ears merges with my own voice the way the words on a page once became my own inner voice when I still read print.”

I agree with Hill — in fact, I feel sometimes as if I can become more immersed in a story when I hear it aloud. With one caveat.

The narrator has to be good.

Voice actors vary greatly in their talents. If you are going to spend 10 hours with a person's voice, you need to like it. I need to be hypnotized by it, actually. And I’ve found that’s harder to get than I thought it would be.

I've been known to stop listening to books if I find the reader's voice too grating or too irritating. Sometimes it's overacting — EVERYTHING IS EXCITING! — and the voice overpowers the story with its misplaced enthusiasm.

Other times, the actor doesn’t even seem to understand the book they’re narrating. My friend, writer Tyrese Coleman, told me that one of her major complaints about books written by and about black people is that the audiobook narrators “tend to suck.”

She finds this true especially for romance novels. “It sounds like your auntie reading you a nasty novel. Don’t nobody want to hear that,” she says.

Other times, the actors just seem bored to tears by what they're reading. I stopped listening to a recent book I purchased on Audible, even though I was very excited to read it, because I couldn't stand the voice actor. At one point in the book, the main character started to sing a lullaby — but our trusty voice actor? She just spoke the verses in her most monotone voice. No attempt at song. After that, I was done.

I'm not alone in my selectiveness for voice actors. Book reviewer Kristopher Zgorski admits that it drives him crazy when a narrator repeatedly mispronounces a word. The same is true for blogger and editor Peter Rozovsky, who finds that many audiobook narrators cannot handle foreign words. “One reader kept pronouncing ‘cache’ as if the author had written ‘cachet,’” he says.

He also continuously discovers voice actors who mispronounce coup de grace. “The correct pronunciation is approximately ‘coo de gruss,’ but some folks will say ‘coo de gruh.’ That is the rough pronunciation of ‘coup de gras,’ which, if the expression existed, would mean, ‘stroke of fat.’”

Thankfully, Audible has a preview option so you can hear a snippet of what the voice sounds like before you buy. This has helped me decide on books several times. I also recently discovered that you can change narrator speeds, which helps. “If I don’t like a narrator as much, but I like the book, I bump them to 1.25 speed,” says writer Josh Denslow. He adds, “If it’s a narrator I love, though, I feel bad speeding them up.”

It is true that once you get a good reader, listening to books can be a delight. I just finished The Widow's House by Carol Goodman, which just last week won the Mary Higgins Clark Award at the Edgars, and I found the audiobook to be a thoroughly pleasant experience.

The story is fascinating and hypnotizing. I was drawn into the world partly because of the careful narration by Cassandra Campbell, but first and foremost by Goodman's lyrical prose and taut plotting and tension. She's a master at what she does, and it was a wonderful way to spend my commuting time.

Other books that have been a standout to listen to in audio form are The End of Everything by Megan Abbott and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

I would be lying if I said I didn't miss the old-fashioned way of reading books. But being able to be immersed in another world sure beats road rage any day.

Tara Laskowski is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and Bystanders, which won the Balcones Fiction Award. She is the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and can be found at

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