Did I “read” that book?

Dear listener,

For years, when people asked if I had read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, I would stumble around on my words. In fact, it was one of my favorite books ever, but somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned the right to say that. Because (this is where I lean in closer to you and lower my voice to a whisper) I listened to an audio version of it.

BUT it was unabridged, and I listened to every word, and if I sound defensive it’s because I am.

For some reason I’ve always felt like a cheater when I listen to a book rather than read it. In fact, I eventually read the print version of The Shipping News, partly because I loved it so much, but also because I didn’t want any more of those awkward social moments. Now I can state loudly and perhaps too emphatically, “Yes, I have read that.”

Yet I suspect it’s a silly, slightly snobby way of looking at books. Of course listening counts. And I know there are books I’ve finished and ultimately really enjoyed because it was an audio book. The Shipping News is one of them. Several people recommended it to me, but every time I started the first few pages, I found it so depressing I couldn’t go on.

One winter I was running a trapline north of our home. I had an hour drive to get to the trail. To pass the time, I decided to listen to The Shipping News. At first it was sad and slow, but before long I was reluctant to leave the warm truck and incredible story when I arrived at the trail head. I would sit there for a few minutes, listening, before finally turning off the truck and putting on my backpack.

I’m not running a trapline this year, but for other reasons I’ve been making frequent trips to Anchorage. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive, one way, from our house. So when I was at the Sutton Public Library the other day, I picked up Bill Bryson’s At Home on CD. He is an author I’ve always wanted to read, but I rarely make time for nonfiction.

The book was fascinating to listen to as I drove. I learned about how silverware first came into use, and how people’s fancy wigs used to get infested with vermin, and why concrete houses never became popular. Bryson’s voice is wry and clever, and he seems to let his curiosity carry him, and the listener, from one odd fact to another.

I was disappointed when it was over. But the next time I was at the library, I picked up the unabridged audio of In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson. Again this is a narrative nonfiction, this one set in Germany during the rise of Hitler. It follows the fate of the unusual American ambassador to Germany at the time. Again, this is not typically my kind of book — I mostly read novels. But it is an incredible story, and with just two CDs left, I find myself bringing it in from the car each afternoon so I can listen to more of it while I wash the dishes.

Even as I’ve listened to these audio history books, I’ve read a half-dozen print novels. And I wonder if I’m experiencing them differently, the audio versus the print.

Do you ever listen to audio books?ย  And do you feel the same about them as print books you’ve read?




  • Sue Mathis says:

    I’ve never listened to an audio book, but after reading what you had to say, I think I’ll head over to the library and take out the audio of The Shipping News. It’s been one I’ve been thinking about reading, but maybe I’ll give it a “listen.”

  • A Baer says:

    My brother was kind enough to give me Tortilla Flats for driving across the Lower 48. It is very nice being able to share a book with someone else while the story goes on endlessly about the gallons of wine being drank.

  • Mr.Jim says:

    I listened to books on tape quite frequently when working the fish counting weirs and other field camps. Worked out pretty well. They got their fish counted, I got entertained. Win Win all around. At the present time I am waiting for the library to get a copy of (The Lifeboat) in, that would be the hard back edition not taped.

  • For me, great storytelling is at the root of any good book, whether factual or fictional. Listening to audio books fits in with that spirit of storytelling, and in a similar way requires my imagination to fill in the sights, smells, and sounds of the story. Film is another thing. I would never say I had read a book if I just saw the movie. I love film and it can be great at telling stories, it is just too different a medium even if the screenplay closely follows the text. While it can certainly engage my emotions effectively, it just doesn’t require as much participation from my imagination the way a good book or audio book does.

  • mtmorigeau says:

    I can’t live without Bill Bryson! The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is one that I give as a gift quite frequently. Most recently to the “foster grandmother” who volunteers in my library. She said she laughed so hard she had an accident and has since bought several copies for her friends.

    Two of the best audio books are Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy – both are fun for the whole family!

    Listening to books is completely valid, but I still distinguish between having listened to it or having read it. There are only so many hours in the day and one has to fill the non-reading times with some form of literature! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Kerry says:

    I read ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin some time ago, and now I’m listening to it in the car. It’s a great book both to read and to listen to, although each experience is slightly different.

    I love to sit with a book but having someone read to me is a different sort of pleasure, and I hear every word, rather than skipping through the odd bit of description (I do turn the CD off in some traffic situations- crossing the Cal Train tracks in San Francisco for example!)

    I love Bill Bryson’s books. His ‘Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ had me helpless with laughter at times.

  • Christine Shade says:

    I highly recommend an audio book of “Rin Tin Tin” – it’s filled with history, dog lore, human to human complications.

  • AlaskaZen says:

    When I was commuting I listened to a lot of audio books. For me, the reader’s voice plays a part in whether or not I like the story. I’ve never read Lolita with my eyes, but I listened to it through Jeromy Irons’ reading and was entranced. Audio books are a fantastic way to add value to those hours driving long stretches.

  • Shirley says:

    I love to listen to audio books when I am in the shop sewing and making dolls. I bought myself and ipod and look forward to being able to take audio books with me when I travel for meetings. It will be nice to be able to knit and listen to a book at the same time as I fly from place to place. It will never replace a real book, but it is very enjoyable.

  • Malvina says:

    I listen to audio books all the time. I love ‘being read to’. I think listening to a book and reading it is pretty much the same thing, LOL. I particularly love listening to the classics – Dickens, for example, should always be listened to! But I’m open to any suggestions.

  • Amy says:

    Here is my list of activites that I couldn’t survive without an audio book: exercising, driving and ironing.

  • Novel Girl says:

    I listened to parts of JANE EYRE as an audiobook while doing housework, and parts as an eBook whilst relaxing. I feel Like I *am* cheating when I try the audiobook! Weird, huh? It’s a legitimate and popular way to read/listen (not sure of the verb — I’m confused) to books but I haven’t listened to audiobooks enough to get over that feeling.

  • I LOVE audio books! I have listened to books that I wouldn’t have taken the time to have “read”. My very, very favorite was “The Help”. The performance of the readers was fabulous. The only negative side to listening to a book is that I don’t remember the name of the book as easily because I only see the book cover when I download it. ListenAlaska is great for free listening material.

  • Donna Braendel says:

    I have many friends who love audio books. Who doesn’t delight in being read to as old as we are? (or I am) It counts ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Nancy says:

    As the person who gets to buy audio books for the library, I am always looking for suggestions……I love to hear what people have “read” and what they are wanting to” read” on audio. Serious audio book listeners have their favorite “readers” and request them just like people request their favorite authors.

  • sardav64 says:

    I have never listened to a audio book although i do enjoy listening to radio stories in particular BBC book at bedtime’ and although they abridge the novels the essence of the story is still there. I find the 15 minutes slots very relaxing before sleep.
    best wishes Sarah

  • I have never listened to an audio book, but I used to enjoy the program, “Radio Reader” that KSKA once aired. I so love reading a book, because I often have to reread a “Wow” passage more than once, it would be a pain to have to keep rewinding the tape. I say that in jest, there is nothing wrong with audiophile books, I once made a taped set of the Dr. Seuss books for my nieces for if I had to read “Fox In Sox” one more time I would quite likely have gone off the deep end.

  • Joe says:

    I personally could never get in to audio books because I get easily distracted. Plus when I find a particular passage from a book that takes my breath away, it’s much easier to re-read/turn the page than hitting a rewind buitton. Also I don’t know if you or your readers are aware but I heard Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone, has purchased the filming rights to In The Garden of Beasts.

  • Eowyn, Yes listening to an audio book is “reading” it. I have a dear friend who is nearly blind and we “read” the same books. I use Kindle and paper and she reads audio books. Sometimes, I really enjoy listening to a book too. My hubby and I will get one and then listen to it in the evenings. It’s something we enjoy together (we don’t have TV). My grown son, who’s also an avid reader divides his time between audio books and paper (He’s not into Kindle yet). He “reads” books while working in his garage on wood projects. So in my world “reading” and “listening” to an audio book are interchangeable, yet very different experiences.

  • Heino Gรผnther says:

    I have a great many audio books, most of them on cassettes though and I do listen
    to them when going to work otherwise this time would be fully wasted to me. At home I listen to them whilst at work marking. I see them as halfway to drama versions of the respective books. Presently I am, listening to Helene Hanffs 84 Charing Cross Road in an unabridged version.

  • Pat Webb says:

    I’d love to be able to “listen” to books but alas, I have a form of ADD (self diagnosed, of course ๐Ÿ™‚
    I think that the only audio book I listened to successfully was “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” read by Maya Angelou herself. I could listen to her talk all day long.

  • Eowyn Ivey says:

    Wonderful to see all these responses! Some great recommendations for audio
    books. Thanks everyone!

  • Mrs Penfold says:

    Hi Eowyn
    Although I love talking books if the actors or writers are captivating, I
    just read ‘In the garden of the beasts’ during the Easter break. Am not sure I could listen to it on audio. Wow, what a great non-fiction yarn that is. Completely engrossing. Fascinating look at that violent time in Germany, from some really unique perspectives. Written in a very plain and straightforward way, using a selection of letters and extensive factual information, which all really works. The landscape it covers is so extensively drenched in terror and blood that a more elaborate writing style could have been overkill. Am so amazed at the excuses people can create to sweep away such cruelty inflicted by the Nazis. Politically convenient for some I guess. Socially convenient for others. Life saving for many.
    Can’t help thinking it would make an intriguing film.
    The best talking book I heard was ‘The witches’ by Roald Doahl. His voice is hypnotic.
    Fran Penfold

  • Shelly Murphy says:

    I do a lot of audio books – or I have at times. I sit and work with headphones on listening, or while driving (which I do a lot of). I have found I prefer non-fiction to listen to – or self-help type of books. I think it’s because when I open the pages of a book, my imagination takes over, and I find I am seeing the book, not reading. And I don;t get that same feeling with an audio book. If I did – it could be disastrous driving down the road.

  • Chris says:

    I actually just finished listening to “The Snow Child” audiobook today! It was my first audiobook experience, and I loved every minute of it. What an absolutely mesmerizing story…I can’t stop thinking about it.

  • fairfaxknitter says:

    Audiobooks allow me to listen/”read” a book while doing my other two favorite things – knit and handquilt. My all-time favorites are “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver, followed by “Thirteen Moons” by Charles Frazier (listening it that book is like listening to your great-grandfather tell his life story). I’m currently reading “The Snow Child” in print and look forward to our library getting the audiobook on CD or online.

  • madronatree says:

    Audiobooks are the only way I get time to ‘read’ these days. When I am actually reading, I look to small children like I am not doing anything and am therefore free to pester. I listen to my books while I am gardening, and while cleaning the house. Not driving, usually — I get too engrossed for that. I just got your audiobook from the library; glad to see you are pro-audio.

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society is a *great* audiobook, as the different letters are read by different actors and really adds to the voices you hear.

    – Madrona, formerly of Anchorage