I mentioned in my last post on statistics that I had been listening to a few audio books from the library, despite having thought previously that I wouldn’t be making much use of that particular variety of ebook. My thinking had been that audio books are fine for long car journeys, but that they didn’t really fit into my current lifestyle very well, since long car journeys don’t feature in it much.

Well I have to eat my words on that, as we have listened to four audio books since my original scepticism. One was so-so, the other three very good. As I mentioned before, the experience of listening rather than reading a book is different in important respects. For one thing, it takes a lot longer to listen to a book than it does to read one (part of my original prejudice against them, I admit). There’s also the problem of the narrator actually intruding on the book. The second book I heard was The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. It was very well done and I enjoyed the narration. The two books after that were the next in the series, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots. In these, the narration was generally good, but there were some things that jarred with me. For one thing, the books are written from a first-person viewpoint, and Thursday Next, the protagonist, comes from the town of Swindon, Wiltshire. So the Lancashire accent of the narrator seemed…odd.

The second narrator also pronounced some things differently from the earlier one, so that ‘Spec Ops’, the abbreviated name for ‘Special Operations’ was pronounced ‘Spesh Ops’ by the first one and ‘Speck Ops’ by the second. Now I know this marks me out as a complete pedant, but the lack of consistency bothered me (couldn’t they just have asked Jasper Fforde which one he preferred?). The occasional mispronunciation of words can also be annoying. Of course it’s perfectly possible that I’ve been pronouncing those words wrongly all these years – but in a text-based book, it’s not something that I have to worry about. The prosody (the stress on words) was sometimes off, too. On a few occasions I found myself thinking that the author probably didn’t mean the sentence to be read with the emphasis on that word. Distracting…

There’s a social aspect to an audio book that’s very different from a text book. I really enjoyed the way that my husband and I were laughing at the jokes in the Thursday Next books as we heard them. It was a shared experience in a way that ‘regular’ reading can’t be (unless you’re a member of a book club, I suppose, but even then, you’re not experiencing the words at the same time as each other). The two later books in the Thursday Next series were only available as printed books from the library. We’ve both read and enjoyed them, but not at the same time. And there’s that element of book-jealousy, too, as one of us had to read them before the other. This only happens occasionally, but the problem reached a peak with one of the Harry Potter books, Order of the Phoenix, I think, where we were reading it in shifts. Audio books avoid that problem neatly.

The other problem with audio books is that it is easier to lose concentration than it is with a printed book. Some interruption can easily distract the listener and, before you know it, you’ve missed a key part of the plot. Price is also something that concerns me about audio books. Since mine have all come from the library service, this isn’t something I can honestly complain about, but the audio book version of The Eyre Affair is $31.93 at audible.com, whereas the ebook is $10.99. That seems like an enormous disparity: quite hard to justify, I’d say. Is this a tax on laziness?