March 05, 2004


I'm either getting older or wiser.

It used to be that when I heard folks praise the wonders of audiobooks, I thought, eh, old foagies, driving their Winnebago through the hills of Wyoming to the accompaniment of a narrated Danielle Steele novel, the hiss of the cassette tape and the flatness of the audio recording making it sound like an AM radio station playing an archived 1940s radio show.

What's worse, audiobooks are expensive. The one I'm listening to now costs $97 from Amazon (see below). Thankfully, I didn't have to buy it. I checked it out from the library. Amazing what one finds in a library if you snoop around enough.

But I've found audiobooks aren't at all what I thought they were: something only for old foagies. I've discovered over the past year that there is a reason why people rave about audiobooks, especially listening to audiobooks while driving the crowded freeways. A well-narrated audiobook magically transports the driver away into other times, distant lands, different circumstances.

Freeways in Southern California are binary: you either speed as fast as you can, or you barely move. There doesn't seem to be an in-between. But when listening to an audiobook, the experience of concrete sameness flying by (or crawling by, enabling one to study the skidmarks, the bits of radiator, fender, grille, antenna, seat cushion, wiper blade, exploded tires, and hubcaps that adorn the edge of the fast lane) is transformed. Driving to and from L.A. is normally an annoyance, an exasperating experience, like the pain of a dental drill or waiting in a long queue with sore feet and nothing to do. It requires intense alertness lest one drive right into the back of the car or truck in front. And yet it is stupefyingly dull and time-wasting.

A great audiobook changes everything. I find I no longer care about the traffic, the hassle of stop and go. While I'm physically in the car on the freeway, at the same time I am physically in the other place, awaiting the next sentence, my imagination replenished with new ideas and vistas every minute.

That's the experience I get with Paul Theroux travel books. I'm in the middle of the twelve-cassette, unabridged audiobook edition of Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, vividly brought to life by narrator Norman Dietz, who after only a short listen makes you convinced he is indeed the curmudgeonly Theroux, sneering at one backwater town after another. Dietz inhabits each character Theroux encounters so fully, you forget you're listening to one narrator: it's like an old-time radio show. Hmm.

Theroux's not everyone's cup of tea. He suits me just fine: his travel tales are engaging, witty (if sometimes acidic), and thoroughly fascinating. What a contrast to the scatterbrained, ADD-ridden blogosphere. Sometimes I think bloggers (myself included) are like crows, gathering and hording into heaps all things shiny.

Audiobooks on iTunes
Apple's iTunes Music Store offers thousands of audiobooks, but the economics don't make any sense. Audiobooks as huge MP3 files (or AAC, whatever) for $50 or whatever they cost just doesn't have any value to me. But there is a solution: do an audiobook as a temporary file that self-destructs in say 30 days, and can only be copied 2 or 3 times, and only costs $5 to $10, I'd buy an iPod and do audiobooks a lot more. But until the digital downloadable versions are more economical, I'll stick with the limited collection at the library.

Posted by brian at March 5, 2004 06:22 PM


Make your own audio books. I just read that a new Panther command 'say' can convert text to AIFF files, which you can rip into iTunes for iPod.

The -v switch lets you pick a voice.

'man say'

Posted by: kevlar at March 11, 2004 04:17 PM

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