When I was a kid, audiobooks were what you listened to if you couldn’t read print. They had their own special section down the back of the library, encased in large boxes holding multiple cassette tapes.
Times have changed. Cassettes are now encased in museums and archives. Smartphones with headphones stream radio, music, podcasts… and now audiobooks.
I bought my first audiobook 6 months ago when I was forced to drive to work instead of commuting by train. Track work had shut down my line.
I didn’t feel like listening to drive-time radio each day so I downloaded A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, by Natasha Lester. It was wonderful.
Narrated by Kelly Burke in her lilting New York drawl, I lived the 1920s Manhattan life of the effervescent Evie Lockhart while crawling along the city freeway. I listened to her assist in her first birth as I navigated my way around B-doubles. I whooped for joy as, against all odds, she achieved her dream of becoming an obstetrician… while I sat in a concrete car park deep underneath a Melbourne skyscraper.
Since then I’ve listened to 6 more audiobooks and kept up my monthly subscription to Audible, Amazon’s audiobook arm. I’ve discovered fabulous benefits but also learned a few things the hard way.
Here are 6 things you should know before you buy your first audiobook.
1. Make sure you like the narrator
An audiobook is essentially a solo performance of a book. You’re going to be stuck with the one voice in your ears for the duration – around 8 hours or more.
I downloaded Geraldine Brooks’ new book, The Secret Chord, as an audiobook but I just can’t get past the first chapter or so. The narrator’s voice grates on me so much that I just can’t listen to it. He’s not a bad narrator and I can see that he suits the subject matter of the novel very well. But I just can’t listen to him.
Tip: Listen to a free preview before buying the whole audiobook.
2. You’ll want to follow narrators as much as authors
All of Liane Moriarty’s audiobooks are narrated by the wonderful Caroline Lee. I love listening to Caroline Lee. I’ve listened to her read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Beth McRae’s Outback Midwife and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. I would quite happily listen to Caroline Lee read me a recipe book. It’s no accident that roughly half the audiobooks I’ve consumed were narrated by Caroline Lee – I went looking for other books she’d narrated and chose from that list.
3. Audiobooks are great when you’re tired
I spend most of my work day on a computer typing and reading. My eyes get tired, my arms get tired and my brain gets tired. But I still want to read. Listening to an audiobook allows me to close my eyes, rest my arms and let someone else do the hard work.
The downside of this is there is a real danger of falling asleep while listening late at night!
4. Audiobooks do not mix well with kids
I’ll often sneak reading material in while I’m sitting on the couch during quiet time with the kids. They watch Doc McStuffins; I read the latest international news… or funny cat posts on Facebook. Quiet time, however, is rarely continuously quiet. I can easily put my phone or book down to answer random questions, get snacks or fix technical issues. Setting aside an audiobook and trying to pick it up where I left off (usually involving the need to go back a paragraph or two) is much harder.
5. Literary novels don’t make good audiobooks
If you’re reading the kind of book that you want to pause and savour regularly, reading the same passage a few times and chewing it over in your mind, or just enjoying the shape of the phrases on the page, DO NOT buy the audio version. I read – and loved – Hannah Kent’s The Good People recently. I deliberately bought the print book rather than the audiobook, or even the ebook, because I wanted to hold the pages in my hand and look at the words myself.
6. Some of the best audiobooks will surprise you
My absolute favourite audiobook is Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia. It’s written and narrated by David Hunt and is absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious. I got plenty of stares from fellow train commuters while listening to this one. His impersonations of the imperious upper-class British early settlers are very funny, his accents are spot-on and his interpretations of Australian history from a 2016 perspective are scathing in a Monty Python black-humour kind of way.
Hunt describes Aboriginal Australians as the ‘unoriginal non-inhabitants’ of Australia – a tongue-in-cheek political statement – and busts the myth that Australia was ‘discovered’ by European settlers in 1788. He refers to Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks as ‘the captain and that plant guy’ and recounts, in amusing detail, the various sailors from several different countries who visited the Australian continent in the centuries prior.
And the reason for the selection of Botany Bay for Britain’s penal colony in 1788? This –
In 1785 ‘[William] Pitt was having problems with his dope dealer. Catherine the Great of Russia controlled the world’s cannabis supply and Pitt needed a regular fix as the Royal Navy used hemp from the cannabis plant to make rope and canvas.
‘(The word canvas is derived from cannabis. Cannabis in ships’ ropes was phased out in the 1930s with the introduction of manila hemp, a fibre made from the banana… Catherine had ordered Russian merchants to form a cannabis cartel and instructed her spies to buy out Britain’s warehoused hemp. She then demanded that the admiralty buy Russian product at exorbitant prices.’
Australia was spruiked as ‘a place to cultivate the New Zeland hemp or flax plant which Banks believed to be better gear than the Russian stuff.’ Hunt then concludes that Australia owes it foundation to ‘tea, tax evasion, criminals and cannabis. With these sturdy pillars as its foundation, what could possibly go wrong?’
Seriously, if you want to get your (older) kids interested in Australian history, get them this audiobook!
Are you into audiobooks? Got any recommendations?