Want to Read More? Think About Audiobooks

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn owes his life-long love of books to his parents: his dad for handing him worn paperbacks of Tolkien and Heinlein, and his mom for too many unthanked trips to the library and back. He graduated from Purdue University with a degree in computer science in 2000, and along with his career as a software engineer has since 2009 edited and published Bull Spec, a quarterly magazine of speculative fiction, which in April published its 8th issue. He also maintains a blog, The AudioBookaneers, on (primarily) science fiction and fantasy audiobooks. He and his family (and cats) live in Durham, NC.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. — Stephen King

I listen to a lot of audiobooks (80 last year; 70 the year before) and so, when Jeremy asked me to write a column on audiobooks for BookLifeNow it took a few tries to settle on just one of the dozen or so things I wanted to say about my favorite medium for stories: how to fit reading more (which is essential!) into a busy life of “real” work, life, and writing.

Long before The Matrix depicted Neo learning Kung-Fu by jacking in and downloading knowledge through a port hardwired into his brain, Robert Heinlein’s 1948 juvenile novel Space Cadet depicted a future where cadets would learn languages, histories, mathematics, and more by listening to sped-up lectures on cassette while under hypnotic suggestion. While I don’t suggest the hypnosis, or running things at supersonic speeds, I do suggest that you can find all manner of time you might not have even known you had to “read” more — to get those tools and ideas you’ll need when you next set pen to paper.

But I’m not here to convince you that you need to read more; I’ll let Stephen King do that. I’m not here to convince you that audiobooks “count.” (I’ll let Neil Gaiman do that.) I’m instead going to give you a few hints to help you discover that you can “read” another book per week than you already are reading. (Because you’re already reading, right? OK, well, to read a book a week, then!)

Actually, though, I lied. It’s just one hint: use more of the not insignificant dead time — when your Vonnegutian Big Brain is not fully needed — to read, by listening to audiobooks. It’s really that simple, and these slices of time quickly add up to 10 hours (or more) per week. To get you started, this hint comes in the form of two lists: (1) when to listen, and (2) when not to listen. I’m fairly confident you can take it from there.

First, a warning: most people can read much faster than an audiobook narrator will dare to read a book. (In fact, some narrators read slowly enough that you may find use for your device or software’s 1.5x speedup setting.) So I absolutely, for several reasons, do not hope you will give up any of your “real” reading time for audiobooks. Instead, keep your books handy and read them when you can; and when you can’t read your books, listen to someone talented read another one to you. Though when you’re pulled into an exceptionally good audiobook, by all means, sit in a comfortable chair and do absolutely nothing else. If you’re concerned about reading more than one book, or listening to more than one audiobook — this can be a very good thing, allowing different levels of engagement and interest for different moods and situations, along with creating episodic reinforcement of your memory for a given book’s characters, setting, and plot. The main thing is to read (or listen) more.

When To Listen

  • laundry: sorting, folding, ironing, hanging, …
  • dishes
  • cooking
  • making coffee
  • cleaning
  • de-fur the cat
  • waiting in line (post office, DMV, haircut, …)
  • wrapping gifts
  • knitting
  • signing a few hundred copies of your book
  • preparing and stuffing a few hundred copies of a magazine for mailing
  • walking (but be safe out there if you have noise-canceling headphones!)
  • stationary bike or other exercise (More from Gaiman: “I lost 30 pounds on ‘Bleak House’ earlier this year. That was awesome.”)
  • in that last half-hour after lights out when you can’t quite sleep — though I advise using a sleep timer on your audio player, as you need sleep more than you need to read another hour
  • when you’re resting your eyes
  • driving (Judith Shulevitz’s recent NY Times essay invites you to “Go Reading in the Car”; bestselling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss says of listening to Jim Dresden’s Changes: “I’m looking for reasons to go driving because I’m hooked into the story again.”)

(That last note’s closing “again” does invite me to sneak in a secondary point to that “one” which I picked for this essay: re-reading, or as Dave Thompson coined “hreading“, books in audio can be a fantastic way to get something new from the text, or, for a difficult novel, to allow a good narrator to help pull you into the story and carry you along.)

When Not To Listen

  • writing
  • reading another book (at the exact same time)
  • conversing with your spouse (really, really, do not attempt)
  • checking e-mail, Twitter, websites, etc. — don’t do this to your friends or a good audiobook

Lastly, while I hope you will start filling up more of your downtime with audiobooks, another warning: do save yourself some time to be unplugged. Even The Motorocyle Way to Complex Plotting can be drowned out if you don’t give your mind any time to just churn on its background processes, to turn all these inputs into insights, breakthroughs, and ideas.

Further Reading

  • John Joseph Adams’s Audiobook Primer for Locus Magazine (though since 2004 some things have changed it’s still a very good resource)
  • The Guilded Earlobe — Bob Reiss’s wonderful audiobooks review blog
  • The Audies — “Awards recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA)”
  • Short fiction: There are podcasts galore in various genres to bring you a large amount of short fiction to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of your Booklife. I talked about a few of these on a Functional Nerds podcast towards the end of 2011, but a few of the ones I pay attention to are: Escape Pod, PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tina Connolly’s wonderful and Parsec Award winning Toasted Cake, Dunesteef, The Drabblecast, …
  • Speaking of podcasts: Luke Barrages’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, Anton Strout’s The Once and Future Podcast, Adventures in SciFi Publishing, I Should Be Writing, The Coode Street Podcast, Starship Sofa, Writing Excuses, Speculate!

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