Getting Started in Audiobooks

A friend mentioned she was interested in getting started in audiobooks, maybe while running. I constantly consume audiobooks while running: This morning, I listened to a bit of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and of Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning. I also listen to audiobooks while walking, waiting, washing dishes, sweeping, driving, brushing my teeth, and so on.

Where to get the audiobooks

The biggest collection I’ve seen is on Audible. The standard minimum Audible package is a little pricey for my taste, where about $15 a month gets you one audiobook of your choice a month, plus discounts on additional audiobooks.

But you can try out Audible with one free book (i.e., a free month). When I decided to leave after that month, Audible offered me three months at half price: about $7.50 per month. After those three months, I left for a while. Last month, I called them to see about signing up and they offered me the half price deal again, so I’m back for three months.

When I’m not using Audible, I use Overdrive, which links to my public library account; I use it with both my Fairfax County library account and my District of Columbia library account. Overdrive is free, like a library, but also like a library, the selection is more limited, and sometimes I have to put a hold on a popular book and then wait a few days or weeks. (I have such a long list of books to consume that I usually don’t mind waiting for one.)

When searching on Overdrive, note that you can filter a search by books that are “Available now” in case you just want something right this second.

A friend recently pointed me to the speed feature in both Audible and Overdrive, where you can listen to books slightly sped up. I now listen to most books at 1.25 or 1.5x the normal speed, and it sounds normal. (My friend does 2x speed, which I save for the slowest narrators.)

Lastly, you can listen to free audiobooks on Librivox, where volunteers read books that in the public domain. I just listened to the 1887 Filipino classic Noli me tangere (The Social Cancer) there and it was well done. On your phone, you can either download the Librivox app or you can listen to the books as podcasts (just search for the book title in the app you use for podcasts).

What to listen to

Hard books: I often use running as a chance to get through difficult economics or history books that I wouldn’t be able to get through in print. I also get big books on Audible since one book per month is free and so the big books are more book-per-dollar. For example, last year I listened to Martin Meredith’s enormous The Fate of Africa (which is pessimistic but useful) and Acemoglu & Robinson’s Why Nations Fail.

Books with great narration: I just finished listening to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous novel Americanah, which is narrated by British actor (of Ghanaian descent) Adjoa Andoh. Andoh gets the accents much closer than I would in my head if I were reading the book. Likewise, when I listened to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which has rotating narrators (some white, some black, all Southern), the range of accents and voices used in the audiobook production made the book much better.

This is also true for comedy books: Jim Gaffigan’s Food: A Love Story, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please were all great in part because the authors read them and they did so fabulously.

Some other authors read their own books very well. Neil Gaiman reads his own books wonderfully (The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane). There are actually awards for audiobooks, called the Audies, although I’ve never used those to guide my listening.

The books I’d want to read but don’t get to: I often listen to prize winners (Beloved, by Toni Morrison) or classics (Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy) or just fun books that I won’t have time to get to in print (Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline).

My recent audiobooks

Here are the audiobooks I’ve listened to this year, in a loose order of preference (best at the top):

Americanah, by Adichie Audible Brilliant novel by Nigerian Adichie. Great narration.
A Confederacy of Dunces, by Toole Overdrive Brilliant satirical novel, brilliant narration
Yes Please, by Poehler Overdrive Extremely fun memoir, read excellently by comic actor Poehler.
Food: A Love Story, by Gaffigan Overdrive Hilarious collection of essays, ready by comic Gaffigan
We Need New Names, by Bulawayo Overdrive First novel by Zimbabwean writer. Very good. Good narration.
A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Kristof & WuDunn Overdrive Very good book on charitable giving, good narration by actor Olivia Wilde
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ozeki Overdrive Lovely novel on misconnection and loss, lovely narration by the author
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Demick Overdrive Excellent book. Good narration.
The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Wister Overdrive One of the first Westerns. Just lovely. Fine narration. (But oddly missing one chapter!)
Half-Life of Facts, by Arbesman Overdrive Interesting book on our changing knowledge in science, fine narration
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by Rakoff Overdrive Novel in verse. Not trivial to follow. Lovely narration by author.
Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers, par Rowling Youtube Good French practice, good narration.
La isla de los amores infinitos, por Chaviano Overdrive Good Spanish practice by a Cuban writer I like. Fine narration.
I don’t know what you know me from, by Greer Overdrive So-so memoir, read by the author
Romance, by Mamet Overdrive Play performed by L.A. Theater Company. Didn’t like the play, despite actors I like.


I updated this post on March 20, 2017, to include my experience with Librivox. 

5 thoughts on “Getting Started in Audiobooks”

  1. I guess I have to look into Overdrive more closely. Berkeley public library’s got it, but I couldn’t figure out how to sync it with my iPod. I assume that will be easier than my checking out the CD version and ripping it, which is what I do now.

    1. I use to do that (the ripping), but the Overdrive version is MUCH easier. If you have an iPod Touch, then you can use the app and just download the audiobooks directly to the Touch.

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