Going to more fully embrace audio for my popular fiction reading

Lately I listened to several Georgette Heyer novels on audio and quite enjoyed them. Now, long-time readers might remember that I have a love/hate relationship with Heyer’s Regency romances. On the one hand, the characters are lively, and I love the humor. But on the other hand, she uses period slang that I find unnecessary and incomprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, the slang problem completely disappeared when I listened on audio. Instead of puzzling over the unfamiliar words, I just caught the sense of them from the intonation (“oh, it’s an insult” or “oh, it’s a sporting term of some sort”) and let the narration carry me onwards.

Lately my response to popular fiction has been much, much better if I’ve listened on audio. I devoured the audio versions of the entire Red Rising series, for instance, whereas I’ve bounced repeatedly off of the written versions.

I’m not sure what it is. Audio is simply less demanding. The story just unravels around you. It’s simpler to visualize and simpler to hold onto. It’s almost like watching TV, to be honest.

This is both good and bad. I’ve tried to listen to more sophisticated books on audio and had mixed results. Henry James simply wasn’t doable. A third of the way through The Ambassadors, I had to switch to a text version. But Remains of the Day, perhaps because it was so voice-driven, worked extremely well on audio. And, of course, the quality of the narrator matters a lot. Some narrators are very good at understanding the difference between acting and telling you a story. I can’t quite explain it, but there’s something about the way a skilled audiobook narrator speeds up and slows down and subtly alters their voice for different characters. It’s pretty incredible stuff.

I’m a bit surprised that there’s such a difference between different listening modalities. After all, in both cases it’s the exact same text. I know some people also claim to perceive a difference between print and e-book, but that’s not something that’s ever been perceptible to me. Here, though, the difference is night and day. Audio feels like a completely different experience. I feel like when I listen to a book, I’m coming much closer to actually living the story.

My woo-woo friends will say that there’s something much more primitive and atavistic about oral storytelling. Hearing a story activates different parts of the brain. It’s older than writing–as old as speech–and much more natural. Generally I take these mystical explanations with a grain of salt, but in this case I think the New Agey types might be on to something.