Last year I read 85 books (COUGH: humble brag). Believe it or not, almost all those books were audiobooks. If you had told me when I was younger that I would be almost exclusively an audiobook reader I’m not sure I would have believed you. But if you’re a busy adult like me who wishes you could read more, you might want to consider giving audiobooks a try.
Audiobooks have transitioned from a format mainly for people who have low-vision or vision impairment to a format for people who want to read but don’t seem to be able to find the time. They aren’t just for vacations and long road trips either! They’re for everyone! Including people who have long commutes, boring chores to get through, or some other kind of repetitive tasks. I think the rise in audiobooks' popularity may be tied to the podcast boom. I know that my gateway into the format, and training to listen to people talk at length, was podcasts. (Speaking of... check out the HCPL podcasts, opens a new window!)
Even with all my experience listening to audiobooks over the past few years, I still think it can be a little hard to put my finger on...
What makes an audiobook good?
I'm talking about the types of books that make us want to stay in our cars an extra five minutes even though it’s going to make us late for work. We gotta know what happens next!
First, just to get this out of the way, I know that life is short and there is only so much time, but DO NOT listen to an audiobook at 3x speed if you want the full and enriching experience of being read a story. I had a couple of friends who told me that they didn’t think that they liked audiobooks and after talking to them for a few minutes it turned out that they had the audio speed dialed way up and it made it difficult to follow the plot. Especially if you’re new to reading books this way, I do not recommend this. Okay, sometimes a narrator reads a little too slowly and deliberately. If this is the case, I give you permission to speed it up to somewhere around 1.15-1.25 speed. Just proceed with caution!
According to Bookriot, opens a new window, and I agree, it takes a particular sensitivity to the material and an understanding of tone by the narrator to make a great audiobook. It helps if the reader has a closeness to the material and a relationship with the characters. For this reason, an author reading their book is usually great. This is especially true in a memoir when the author talks about their own lives. It also helps if they are already a performer. In my opinion, the best example of this is the comedy memoir. I highly recommend listening to any David Sedaris memoirs, opens a new window, Tiny Fey reading Bossypants, opens a new window, or Tiffany Haddish reading The Last Black Unicorn, opens a new window.
"Comedy is tragedy plus time." Just because these authors are funny doesn’t mean these books are all full of jokes. Listening to Maria Bamford read her book Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, opens a new window is amazing because she tells the same stories and jokes onstage for a living. She also added in some sound effects and other fun tidbits that could not be included in the physical book. Though this book is funny, it also deals with very serious topics.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Jeannette McCurdy reading I’m Glad My Mom Died, opens a new window and Michelle Zauner reading Crying in H Mart, opens a new window. These are bestselling and heartbreaking books about their very different relationships to fame and the loss of their mothers.
Actors and performers are not the only great audiobook narrators. I believe that the most important thing is for the narrator to be an engaging and dynamic reader. An injection of personality and feeling is very important.
Sound effects and music are a fun, if not strictly necessary, addition that authors, narrators, or publishers, can add to audiobooks, a way to really lean into the audio medium that they’re using and embellish the story. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, opens a new window was one of our most popular check outs in 2023, so I gave the audiobook a try. This audiobook uses a device where when the narrator is “playing” a recording of a phone call they use a phone ringing sound effect, and a different voice actor will act out the part of the person on the other end of the line. Adding this type of embellishment isn't a new way to tell a story, it's like an old-timey radio serial or a podcast. But this, to me, demonstrates that the audiobook producers understand how they can use the medium to elevate and enrich the story.
For an official outlook on the topic, you can take a look at the Audiofile, opens a new window magazine website and their awards for outstanding audiobook performances at their annual Audie Awards, opens a new window. You can also view a history of audiobooks on their webpage.
What makes an audiobook bad?
Maybe it wasn’t the worst audiobook experience I’ve ever had, but the one that stands out the most to me recently was when I listened to a book and the narrator sounded exactly like the famous TikTok lady voice, opens a new window. The reader was not the famous Tiktok lady voice, but I just couldn’t get past it and it kind of ruined my experience of listening to that book. I understand that this example may be subjective, but if you can’t vibe with, or even stand, the voice of the narrator then you’re not going to enjoy the book.
I have to agree with the good folks at Bookriot, opens a new window that not every book can or should be turned into an audiobook. Certain genres lend themselves more readily to being read aloud, like mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance. A dry informational or instructional book, though very helpful, would not be a good listen. Let’s be honest, I’m listening to audiobooks so that I can multi-task. A book with a lot of dense description and not a lot of action or dialogue is probably also not the best type of book for this medium. That’s the type of book that I need to sit down with and give my full attention. The times when I have tried to listen to books like this, I’ve had to give up because I’m completely lost, and I end up checking out a physical copy of the book instead.
Getting Started with Audiobooks
Need help getting started? If you don’t mind using an app on your phone or other devices, Harris County Public Library offers the Libby app through Overdrive. You just log in with your library card number and you’ve got access to all of our eBooks and eAudiobooks. You can also download the audiobook directly from our website if you prefer to listen in a web browser. If you are not a fan of all this new technology, that’s okay too. Believe it or not, the library does still have books on CD.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi Fiction
For more YA audiobook recommendations check out the YALSA lists, opens a new window