An Ill Start To Listening

An Ill Start To Listening

I hope 2017 isn’t starting as it means to go on, because I’ve spent the past four days ill to the point of being stuck in bed, unable to read or watch TV or do, well, anything. My latest novel has been as neglected as my French coursework (for which the deadline is rapidly approaching), and I’ve had to resort to listening to audiobooks to avoid dying of boredom.

Me and audiobooks, we’re not the best of friends.

I mean, it’s partly just a practical thing. I’m a fast reader, so the average YA book would take me a couple of hours; listening to the audiobook would take maybe eight or nine, if not longer. There’s no way of speeding it up, at least not when you’re using YouTube to listen to an audiobook someone has uploaded in a manner that is possibly less than legal. So it’s slow.

I can’t multitask while listening, except in super basic ways like when I’m eating or knitting, and I could read while doing that anyway. It’s not like driving or something, where reading at the same time would be impossible so an audiobook allows me to reclaim a bit of time I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I can’t drive, so that isn’t a feature in my life.

Dedicating eight or more hours to doing nothing but listening, therefore, when I could probably read the same book in two, has never appealed. But if I enjoyed doing it, I could see myself making it an occasional habit. I just… don’t.

It’s the accents, usually. When I was trying to find an audiobook I could tolerate for more than two minutes to distract me from feeling ill, I skimmed through the opening paragraphs of quite a few of them, and discovered something important: I really don’t like audiobooks where the narrator has an American accent. Especially when they’re also male.

I spent some time trying to figure out why this was, because while I think the US is a strange, terrifying place filled with people who believe you should have to pay for the privilege of not dying from treatable health conditions and that children should be allowed easier access to guns than fireworks, I also know some very nice Americans and I wouldn’t like to think of myself as prejudiced against them.

Eventually I figured it out — it’s about how similar the audiobooks’ narration is to my own internal narration when I’m reading.

I don’t think I particularly read things aloud in my head when I’m reading, because if I did I’d have to bother figuring how to pronounce the names of characters in fantasy novels. Nevertheless, I do read in my own accent (occasionally throwing me off when a character says something rhymes and the way I say it, it doesn’t). I’ve yet to come across any Australian audiobook narrators, or other English-speaking narrators, so in my hugely unrepresentative sample, the American narrators tend to be the furthest from how I read in my head.

The result is a sort of barrier, because my brain can’t group this experience into the same one as reading. I have to get past the accent (and, if it’s a man narrating, that adds another layer to penetrate) to be able to listen to the words, and I have to get past the words to be able to listen to the story.

It might not be such an issue with books that are clearly set in the US and have American characters, especially if there’s been a film or TV show that means I associate those characters with an accent. After all, sometimes I find myself mentally reading a character to match how I imagine their accent sounding. With high fantasy though? Nope. I’m out of there.

I mean, the chances of finding a narrator who sounds like my internal narration are slim. I don’t even know you’d describe my accent other than “British mish-mash”, because while I’ve always lived in South-East London and have the slang to show for it, my accent occasionally migrates north or west, depending how it’s feeling. I’ve been asked if I’m from Bristol, if I’m Northern, and — notably, and several times — whether I’m Australian, which was a surprise.

The audiobook I eventually settled on was The Scorpio Races. It was Cait @ Paper Fury’s suggestion, and a good one, because the narrators have tolerable accents and I’ve read the book before so I’m less likely to miss things or get confused. Even there, though, accents distract me.

With this audiobook, it’s definitely a case of accents plural, because the narrators put on different ones when reading dialogue, and several of the characters have very different ways of speaking. Some of them are apparently Irish. A couple sound vaguely Welsh. Some are something odd in between.

The slow speed and accents have combined to mean I’ve spent most of the past eight hours or so of listening desperately trying to figure out Thisby’s exact geographical location. I mean, I know it’s meant to be an island somewhere off the British Isles, but where? Culturally and mythologically it’s a contradiction, and its approach to history doesn’t make it easier to pin down.

(I’d thought that references to St Columba might help me make sense of it, until Puck informed the reader that Columba had been martyred there, an entirely baffling statement given that Columba wasn’t, you know, actually martyred… at all…)

And don’t get me started on trying to pin it down historically, because it’s been bugging me for days.

So I’ve realised the other issue with audiobooks. Even once I’ve found an accent that my brain will tolerate as a reading voice, and even once I’ve committed to spending time on something like this (when ill in bed and unable to do anything else), the last problem is more difficult to overcome. By forcing me to experience a story eight times slower than I would have read it myself, I get caught up in a million little details I would never have noticed the first time… and I question all of them.

I’m not saying I’m enjoying The Scorpio Races less because of this, although I do have way more questions than I did from reading it. It’s just made it fairly clear to me that audiobooks aren’t going to become more frequent parts of my life from here on. I’m not a convert. I’m a reluctant listener at best.

Plus, it’s the fourth day of January and I’ve yet to complete a single book for the Goodreads Reading Challenge 2017, unlike some of my friends who are already lurking around book number four or five. I can’t be dealing with this speed. I’d never get anything done.

Let’s hope the fact that I’m currently upright and typing this is a sign that I’m getting better and will be able to go back to reading The Archived by Victoria Schwab, which was meant to be my first read of 2017 and which has been sitting neglected with a marker in page 108 for four days.

Before I go, though, I’ve got a question for the audiobook aficionados out there. Do you ever experience the same sense of disconnect because of accents that I’ve described, or am I just being weird? How do you get over it? And do you find you experience books totally differently if you listen to them versus reading them for yourself?

Bonus: has anything I’ve said in this post made you think, “Ah ha! I have just the audiobook for Miriam to read”? Let me know, and maybe next time I’m ill I’ll give it a go.

7 thoughts on “An Ill Start To Listening

  1. I like listening to audio books a lot. I also tend to agree with you regarding the American accents. I don’t mind them if the author or the subject is American, as it helps with the atmosphere. I don’t think of listening as equivalent to reading a book. As in; if I have listened to a book I would not claim to have read it. The experiences are too dissimilar. Recent audiobooks I have enjoyed are Richard E Grant reading Orwell’s “Keep the aspidistra flying” and Laurence Kennedy reading “The Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan. Special mention to Anna Massey reading a vast series of British (mostly English) History from the BBC, Juliet Stephenson reading Austen’s work, Stephen Briggs reading Pratchett’s and Roy Dotrice reading the entire saga of “A Song of Fire and Ice”. Several audiobooks have encouraged me to acquire the print version, such as “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari and even Niall Ferguson’s “Ascent of Money”.

  2. Oh don’t worry, I fully understand the accent issue. Except I’m entirely opposite which is kind of strange?! I much rather prefer audios by male narrators. Females just put a lot more emotion and tones into it and I don’t like emotion and tones.? Whereas I find male narrators read less emotionally haha. And something about the pitch too. (But seriously I feel so awful for always picking male narrators. I’M SO BAD.)

    (Also do you have access to overdrive.com with your library card? Depending on your library’s selection, they might have more options and you should be able to load them onto a phone/ipod and speed it up. I always listen at 2 x the speed because people are soooo slooooow.)

    I’m so glad The Scorpio Races worked for you a bit! (MY FAVOURITE AUDIO EVER OMG.) I also would cautiously suggest Illuminae if you can find it? It’s dramatised which I found super interesting and engaging (but very slowly read so, erk, if you can’t speed it up it might be very frustrating). And also On Jellicoe Road is an Aussie woman narrator. Skulduggery Pleasant is a male, but an Irish accent which I thought was brilliant. ? I’m 99% sure Jackaby is a British female narrator. Same with Code Name Verity and The Golden Compass. But I guess a lot of this will depend on what you can find!!

    1. Hmm, Illuminae could be interesting — I was put off the book by its crazy formatting because my brain just went NOPE at the sight of it. (Total sensory overload.) Of course, I don’t know that I’d get on well with the audio, but at least it would be different. I actually looked up Skulduggery Pleasant because I thought it might be a fun one, but in my limited searching I didn’t find it (which just means it wasn’t on YouTube).

      I do have access to Overdrive — I’ve used it to borrow ebooks from the library — but I don’t know what they have in the way of audiobooks as I’ve never really investigated it. Maybe I’ll look into that. YouTube certainly isn’t practical in the longer term: having to keep it open and playing totally destroys my phone battery.

      I’m not big on emotions and tones normally, but when it’s too monotone I just fall asleep. Like, the narrator for The Raven Boys? (Which I have on audio because it was going free at one point.) I can’t even remember how many times I fell asleep, it’s so soporific.

      I’ll investigate finding them in a format I could speed up, which would definitely help me to like them better, though I doubt they’ll ever win me over entirely. If nothing else, it would be good to be prepared in case I get ill in this way again…

  3. I really love listening to audiooboks while cooking or running or crafting. The accent does bother me for usually the first part as well, and after a while I get used to it, and then that’s just how the characters voices sound. I think most narrators I’ve listened to are american, though…

    1. Yeah, it’s possible if I stuck with it I’d get used to it — I’m always quite quick to make a decision about them. I’m neither a runner nor a cook, but I’ve got into knitting recently and I’d like to do more physically creative stuff (I used to be really into crafts when I was younger, but drifted away from it), so who knows, maybe I’ll end up finding audiobooks quite helpful after all?

  4. I don’t like the accents on books I’ve read before, because they tend to screw up the thoughts I already have in my head, you know? But first-time books work for me. I think my favorite audiobook I’ve ever listened to was Yes Please by Amy Poehler, which is not a novel but still a story and funny. She also gets guest stars like Sir Patrick Stewart to read some stuff for her. So it is great.

    Also, I get that it is a struggle with the Goodreads challenge. Some people have read ten books already and I am like “WHAT?” But I’m also one of those people with four down—still, it can also be subject to interpretation. I read a 12-page poetry chapbook that’s counted towards my total so far. Goodreads is weird.

    1. Yeah, I think possibly non-fiction works better in some ways — I’ve been listening to Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson which is about travelling around Britain and that’s been pretty good, he makes me laugh.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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