Is it OK to ‘read’ audiobooks in lieu of paper books?

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

You’re assigned a big, classic book to read, and you may think you only have two options — find time to read it or try to figure out through Sparknotes and similar sites what the book is about. And while I wouldn’t recommend the latter, as it’s technically cheating, there is a third option you may not have considered, which I do not consider to be cheating — audiobooks.

I drive a lot and find that I’m able to really expand my books-read resume by filling in the gaps with these files. And you may be able to get them cheap or free.

Let’s address the various questions you may have about them:

How do you get free audiobooks?
Many books have had their copyrights expire, and kind posters put them on the web; either on dedicated sites that you can find via Google or on Youtube.

How do I download them?
Usually a right-click will allow you to download these mp3 files, and you can play them on any device that can play music, including your smartphone. If the audiobook is on YouTube, there are “Youtube to mp3” conversion sites, where you can copy the YouTube URL into a form field, hit submit, and an mp3 file is created. I actually burn them them to re-writable CDs and play them in my car. The car’s CD player remembers where I left off each time I turn it on.

Why aren’t audiobooks cheating?
You are listening to the exact words the author intended for you to hear. It is important to focus and “read” the words in your head for them to stick. It takes practice to get to this level of focus, but eventually you will get used to it. If you find your mind starting to wander, it means you’re getting tired. Stop the player and take a break. Maybe listen to some music in between chapters.

What are some tricks to stay focused when listening to audiobooks?
I find the hardest part is keeping track of all the characters. With a printed book, it’s easy to go back and research who a certain character is. But with an audiobook, that’s not convenient — especially if you are driving. I go to Wikipedia and look at a list of the book’s characters to help me know who is who (be careful not to read spoilers on Wikipedia).

How are audiobooks better than printed books?
Aside from convenience for people who are in, say, cars, or on an elliptical machine, many audiobooks have excellent readers who use inflection and different voices to really make the dialogue come to life. For example, the late Frank McCourt reads the excellent Irish immigrant classic “Angela’s Ashes” himself, inserting all the appropriate accents and brogues.

What books work best in audio form?
Books with lots of dialogue where the actor performs all the voices are the most riveting. Also, the books should have a definitive plot — for example, genre books like detective and crime novels.

What books don’t work?
Sometimes the readers aren’t very good. Also, books with endless description — think “Moby Dick” (25 hours!) — lull me into daydreams. If driving, I may fall asleep at the wheel and veer off the road!

Which specific audiobooks are recommended?
I have read the paper versions of Dashiell Hammett detective books “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man” and recently downloaded the audio version of “The Glass Key,” which is different than his other works. The detective is not a real detective — he’s a gambler and a political henchman doing a murder investigation for a New York political boss — but the boss may be one of the suspects. This is an interesting and prescient look at governmental corruption in the Empire State. I’d also downloaded Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which is well known for its surprise ending — but I found it a bit gimmicky.

I wouldn’t say that audiobooks are necessarily better than paper books, and I still read plenty of those, but for certain types of works, they’re fine. You just have to be prepared for seven or so hours of highly focused listening — sometimes paper books can be finished in less time because many people read faster than the spoken word.

Listen to a sample before you download to determine if this book’s reader and content work for you. Be aware of abridged versions of audiobooks — only download the full, unabridged versions. Happy listening!

Darren Johnson has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Southampton College of Long Island University and teaches the occasional English course. 

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