I’m very sure that I’m far too young to use the phrase “back in my day”… but back in my day, audiobooks were clunky collections of CD-roms that you had to play in your Discman (changing out the AA batteries every couple of hours). Times have changed, Keeper Upperers. With a family history of both book-loving and macular degeneration, I’ve long been a staunch advocate of audiobooks. I’ve made many an impassioned, self-righteous speech about how reading audiobooks is reading, and anyone who says otherwise needs to pull their ableist head out of their proverbial arse. But, I had to admit: I never actually read them myself. Here’s the story of your ride-or-die paperback reader learned how to read audiobooks.
I might never have undertaken this audiobook project at all, had it not been for the scourge of COVID-19. I’m sure that seems counter-intuitive. After all, doesn’t the imposition of self-isolation and social distancing give one more time to sit at home, alone, with a paperback? In theory, yes, but there’s a confluence of factors at play, here. First off, I’m a podcast junkie: I live with headphones in, listening to all manner of chatter about a range of topics, regardless of what’s going on in the world. Second, I’m a cheapskate, and I never could bring myself to shell out for an Audible subscription on a whim. And, finally, even though I knew that my local library had a program for loaning digital audiobooks, I never quite got around to actually downloading the app and figuring out how to use it. That’s where COVID comes in.
See, libraries have been pillars of our community for as long as books have been around. They are one of the most adaptable, agile, and accommodating systems that the human race has developed (and, yes, that’s a hill I’m willing to die on – fight me!). I’ve always known it, and this knowledge was reinforced by reading The Library Book, and the onset of a global pandemic. Libraries around the world had found ways to continue to serve and protect (I use that phrase very deliberately, ahem) our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, even in the face of unprecedented pressure and constraint. Some have been transformed into testing clinics, some have found safe ways to offer entertainment and engagement to isolated families, all have provided refuge and support in a time of crisis.
Being the pinko leftie I am, I wanted to find a way to support my local library the way it has supported my community this year. With most branches closed, and my representatives at all levels of government sick of my advocacy emails, I had to get creative. I had always meant to try audiobooks, and here was the perfect opportunity: I would download the library app, showing my support by using their resources (which would inevitably show up in a spreadsheet somewhere, validating their worth) in a way that didn’t deplete the capacity of the librarians themselves, and I’d tick an item off the bucket-list into the bargain. Win-win!
I actually felt kind of silly for having put it off for so long. My library offers a free app with a simple interface that required nothing more than my library card number and my email address. Digital audiobooks and eBooks are all offered on the same platform, with separate and generous lending limits. It took me five whole minutes to master the thing from end-to-end. What on earth had I been waiting for?
I decided against borrowing eBooks (my phone screen is too small for extended reading, and as I’ve said, I’m committed to paper-and-ink), but there were thousands – literally thousands – of audiobooks available to download at the tap of a button. I had the option to reserve ones that were currently on loan (the same way I would physical books in the library building). I could borrow audiobooks of every conceivable genre, age, and origin. Really, the biggest struggle was figuring out how to narrow down the options I had available to me.
In the end, I just picked a few that were accessible immediately, and pressed play. I popped my cherry with Everywhere I Look, narrated by Helen Garner herself, and I was hooked! I moved on to Tiny, Beautiful Things – also narrated by the author, Cheryl Strayed. My podcast library languished, accumulating dozens of new episodes by the day.
I turned to Peter FitzSimon’s biography of Nancy Wake (a woman in whom I have a long-standing interest), and hit a snag. I was almost instantly bored. It was as though I could understand, logically, that the content was worthy of my attention but… couldn’t sustain it, somehow. I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering. I returned it after only a couple of chapters, and didn’t mark it as read on my Goodreads.
Here’s the thing that every audiobook reader has ever told me, but I’ve never really understood until now: your personal taste matters, and it will affect how you read audiobooks. Don’t expect your taste for audiobooks to be the same as your taste for traditional paper formats. Some people read exclusively non-fiction audiobooks, because they find fictional stories just can’t sustain their attention. Others love reading fiction in the audio format, because it feels like being read a bed-time story. Horses for courses, and all of that.
I’ve now burned my way through nearly a dozen, and here’s what I’ve established about my own audiobook tastes:
- Books with short chapters work best, or essays (see: Everywhere I Look, and Tiny, Beautiful Things above)
- I have a general preference for audiobooks with Australian narrators (not a hard-and-fast rule, but I find myself soothed by the familiar twang of my homeland)
- I’m more interested in books I wouldn’t read otherwise, or books I’ve already read (like Pride And Prejudice). Reading a book on my Official To-Read List in the audiobook format doesn’t lend itself to taking notes or paying serious attention, the way I do for books I review here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.
- I like lighter content, the treat-yourself fluffy books that you might read on the beach. Simon Vs The Homo-Sapiens Agenda was a winner, as was The Rosie Effect.
So, here’s my advice, if you’re curious and you’re wondering how to read audiobooks: just start. You don’t need to pay for a subscription service (though Audible offers a free trial, and they’ve introduced a more affordable pricing structure – and, of course, if you’re kind enough to sign up for one through a link from this site, I’ll get a tiny commission that helps me keep the lights on, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude as well as a library of audiobooks at your fingertips). Head to your local library’s website, and I can all-but-guarantee they’ll have a digital Discman-free option for you. If you’re stuck in the dark ages, they’ll probably still have a (smaller) stock of CDs on hand, to get your feet wet. It won’t be half as hard as you’re imagining, and it’ll be twice as rewarding as you expect.
Don’t be put off if the first (or second, or third) audiobook you try doesn’t hold your attention. Try, and try again. Think about how long it took for you to learn to read paper-and-ink books: where would you be if you’d given up after one or two failed attempts?
As for me, I’m a convert. I can’t bring myself to abandon podcasts entirely, but audiobooks have been worked into the rotation permanently. I probably won’t purchase a subscription to any service while my library offers such a huge range, free of charge. I also probably won’t specifically review audiobooks here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I probably will go back and re-read books I have previously reviewed – in fact, I’ve got The Age Of Innocence tee’d up and ready for me as soon as I’ve finished writing this post…
Do you read audiobooks? How did you learn to let go of paperbacks and love the earbud? Let me know in the comments!