Category Archives: Audiobooks

Light, Sound, and the Speed of the Mind

Reading philosophy, including its essential byway of political theory, requires a kind of patience that demands readers monitor their own capacity as much as the author’s path making. As an undergraduate, I learned that some philosophical texts were best consumed if I read them aloud, a discovery that certainly helped me in graduate school while horrifying some of my fellow students there.

Across most of adulthood, however, my reading of both classical and contemporary philosophy texts has been silently tracked with my eyes. Of course, the going is more slow than when my eyes track murder mysteries in print or even works about biology, behavioral psychology, or history. A rubric of good journalism is its transparency so reading the news happens, for me, at something akin to the speed of light.

However, recent audiobook publishing of mid- and late-twentieth century Western philosophy texts has given me the opportunity to discover—and this time with expert narrators in the driver’s seat—that ears, rather than eyes, are the preferred conduit for taking in sentences in which a variety of dependent clauses, and their order, require careful tracking. Discovering the variety of interpretative performance styles audiobook narrators are bringing to philosophical texts has also led to an eye-opening time. Some present the text in almost casual tones, pacing the reading as though they were chatting with the audience, or performing a literary novel in which word choice and phrasing counts but the emotional inflections do as well. Others assume a kind of lecture pacing, with halts as though they themselves are considering the passage just presented, or rushing ahead when the text doesn’t seem to serve a purpose other than as a bridge to their own next a-ha moment.

One very recent listen brought a variety of insights about differences in eye-reading and ear-reading, however. Hannah Arendt’s 1963 On Revolution is narrated by the Audio Publishers Association’s 2017 Best Female Narrator, Tavia Gilbert, whose voice work can be heard in a variety of genres from science fiction to thriller to romance, and audiobooks for very young listeners, reads this one at a speed that frightened me for all of the first two minutes—and then I realized that she had accurately tapped Arendt’s own speed of thought rather than her speaking pace (which, in her native German, can be heard here). Famous for her long sentences (which her friend author Mary McCarthy would prune ahead of final editing), Arendt required them in order to crystalize the prism of any one of her speculations, assertions, or analyses. And Gilbert, for her part, re-animates that speedy thought process by delivering aloud sentences that might take the eye-reader two or three goes to absorb.

This new spate of audiobook publishing is most welcome, as long as it hews to the high standard of interpreting the author’s expressive pace. Gilbert has set the mark.

Women’s Voices

International Women’s Day is celebrated this week so if you’re seeking some good options for tuning in to women of whom you’ve heard named and read with your eyes, take the opportunity to hear them in their own voices.

Poet Gertrude Stein was recorded reading her 1922 poem Idem the Same: A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,in 1935 and preserved by the University of Pennsylvania audio archives. Already noted by then as a woman who was not treading the patriarchal path her gender was assigned, Stein’s voice is expectedly strong and dramatic.

Eudora Welty can be heard reading her 1941 short story Why I Live at the PO in a a recording mounted on YouTube that should be slowed to .75 speed in order to sound natural. The story itself reflects both Welty’s acute observation powers regarding social dynamics between and among women as well as the short story craft at its best. Flannery O’Connor read her short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find at Vanderbilt University, in 1959, and hearing it in her drawl gives it authentic body as well as soul. Recorded half a dozen years after it was first published, and five years before the young author’s death, this mid-century dark comedy is a fitting memorial to its author as well as a window on a particular aspect of gender in the time and place it’s set.

Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem And Still I Rise can be heard in her voice, and with her introduction, on a recording published by one of her students on YouTube in 2007. Here a woman’s viewpoint and reading are presented as universal as well as particular. In 1991, Adrienne Rich turned our attention to nature as a necessity in a time of turmoil that threatens life as well as social parity. You can hear her read What Kind of Times Are These?” in 2000, recorded at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

The next step would be to find the woman who speaks of women now. You might ask the next woman you meet for a recommendation of the voice you need to hear next. Better, ask the next three women and follow up every lead they offer.






The Men behind the Words

In 1974, a book by Theodore Rosengarten was published and went on to the win the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs (a category that later became “Nonfiction”). The work itself was an oral history of a man identified as Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), a sharecropper in Alabama who stood up against sheriffs who had come to take away a fellow sharecropper’s property. In 2000, Sean Crisden read Rosengarten’s account of Shaw’s words and recollections in the audiobook format of All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.

In both print and audio formats, the work has received wide critical praise, and the man underneath the writing and then the performance of the written—Nate Shaw/Ned Cobb—remains alive through these interventions of other men’s voices. In effect, the fact of Nate Shaw can become fixed because his unscripted speaking was heard, recorded in written text, and now heard again through the oral performance of an informed actor. Instead of these interventions diluting the immediate and personal accounting of Mr. Shaw, they serve to extend the reach, and the permanence, of his witnessing to history.

And that, it seems, stands as a powerful demonstration of the community needed to make any one person’s experiences alive for others: the speaker, the listener, and the recorder, all of whom make possible that there be an audience beyond the immediate and singularly small original one.

Load Up the Links to Forthcoming Audiobook Kudos

This week, the finalists in each category of the Audie Awards (the “Oscars of audiobook publishing”) are announced. Less than a week later, ALA’s Reference & User Services Association’s CODES section releases its annual Listen List during ALA Midwinter, while the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) publishes its Notable Children’s Recordings list, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) releases its Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults list, and those two ALA sections together announce the annual Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production. So today would be a good time to get all your links updated to these various best audiobooks (and probably a good time to clear out your online storage of audiobook files of titles you’ve decided you don’t need to keep).

Here’s where to get each of these advisories for the aurally omnivorous:

The 2018 Audies finalist slates, in more than two dozen categories (some genre, some performance style, some performer gender), are revealed via social media all day Tuesday, 6 February, and then find a website home at

The Listen List, formally announced on Sunday, 11 February, will then be posted online at

 Announcement of the Odyssey Award (including any Honor titles in addition the winner) is part of the Youth Media Awards event slated for 8 am Monday, 12 February, in Denver. The event is live streamed and then the announced winner(s) are listed on the Odyssey Award homepage.

ALA press releases will carry the 2018 Notable Children’s Recordings and Amazing Audiobooks lists. Then each of them can be found on a stable web page, Notable Children’s Recordings at and Amazing Audiobooks at – current Each of these lists runs to over a dozen titles.

If ever you needed an idea of what audiobook to try next, this would be your month for abundant advice!

Audiobooks for Building the Most Essential Communication Skill

Audiobooks have long been used in English-speaking countries to support new language acquisition for immigrant students. Their use in English language teaching in places outside these countries is beginning to take hold, now that digitally available audiobooks allow for more accessibility in secondary and university learning situations.

This month The Journal of Language Teaching and Research has published a new and compelling study of the benefits of “Using Audiobooks for Developing Listening Comprehension among Saudi EFL Preparatory Year Students” (Manal Mohamed Khodary Mohamed, Suez Canal University). The literature review noted in its opening paragraph speaks directly to the role of listening skills in communication success:

Listening is considered the most important language skill for achieving effective communication and good academic achievement among learners. It is a highly integrative skill because it is generally the first skill which learners develop (Oxford, 1993; Vandergrift, 1999). It has been emphasized as an essential component in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) process (Vandergrift, 2003). It has a great role in the construction of language abilities of a Foreign Language (FL) learner (Rost, 2002). It has acknowledged a great importance in FL classrooms (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Rahimi, 2012). The role and importance of listening in SLA exceeds acquiring meaning from sounds because it does not only mean recognizing the sounds but it also involves detecting, conveying and comprehending the information and it allows comprehending the world and creating social relationships among humans (White, 2006). In spite of the importance of listening, it did not get concern in language teaching for many years (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Nation & Newton, 2009). It was the least understood and the most overlooked of the four skills (Nation & Newton, 2009; Wilson, 2008). Moreover, listening is the most difficult task for learners when they begin to learn a FL and it is the most challenging skill to be developed (Berne, 2004; Vandergrift, 2007).

In addition, then, to the experimental design, methodology of analyzing its results, and the reported results, this paper offers a concise introduction to the value of aural competency and how it can be developed through audiobook listening.

Build Listening Awareness with Challenges

Omnivorous readers with competitive bones in their bodies (if only to seek a personal best), and librarians and teachers seeking some self-managed professional development, look to reading challenges to stimulate self-accomplishment. Biblioblogs of all sorts publish them to ring in the new year, and the range on offer includes some better suited to relatively neophyte casual readers to those for word warriors. A benefit to many all along this spectrum is the sense of community joining a challenge can bring: who else has taken the challenge? How’s it working out for them? Is there someone among them who can offer support when the reading gets dull? Is there a well-matched super-reader to provide extra motivation for the high-achieving competitor?

A number of these challenges suggest participants take the occasional “challenge” of trying an audiobook. And there are a few audiobook-specific challenges on offer as well. The Caffeinated Reviewer has a well developed one that offers various intensity levels as well as the opportunity to find a listening buddy or buddies. This is a high quality, no-fee skill-building opportunity that can appeal to readers’ advisors, audiobook collection selectors and developers, language arts teachers, and families.

If joining a group doesn’t appeal, this audiobook listening challenge—and many others—can be undertaken independently. All you need is a good supply of audiobooks (library, OpenCulture, anything but piracy, please), listening advice and recommendations, and a will to listen more, and more deeply.

Closeup Listening

Oral history projects organized, performed, and/or administered by archives and libraries create opportunities for audiences dispersed by geography and date to hear first person accounts of personal and public events. Typically led or encouraged by a prepared interviewer who prompts for details or expansions on the featured speaker’s memories and observations, these histories arise without a pre-written script and so arrive in fully oral vernaculars: the pitches and tones of the subject, of course, but also the cadences of unfolding oral expression, and regional and idiosyncratic word choices that have become second nature to the speaker rather than being carefully selected to impress or hide from the audience.

A variety of public and arts and culture agencies have utilized the method for acquiring and preserving elderly community members who have experienced contrasting eras, been present through public disasters, or witnessed momentous political and/or social events. Unlike the historian or the journalist, the subject providing the oral history’s content comes to the table with a personal understanding from which the account is told, providing contemporary and future audiences with direct access to how the reported events and observations were experienced. Continue reading Closeup Listening

AudioFile Magazine Names Best Nonfiction & Culture Audiobooks 2017

This is the season when “best” lists bloom like gardens in spring and understanding who declares a publication as best of the year is the first step to deciding why that declaration deserves what amount of attention. Since AudioFile Magazine is the only publication that has been reviewing audiobooks only, and for 25 years, the accumulated experiences of their editors and reviewers puts them in the lead for a demonstrated capacity to judge the best from a year’s output of new audiobooks. AudioFile’s reviews concern themselves with the specifically audio format of the presentation: narration quality, suitability of the written work to audio performance, and directional and engineering attention during the publication process.

This year’s list of more than 100 best audiobooks is divided into topical areas, with Nonfiction and Culture audiobooks accounting for 11 titles on the full list. From the mathematical and molecular delights in the history of CAESAR’S LAST BREATH, written by Sam Kean and read by Ben Sullivan, through the all-the-rage Danish cosy movement discussed in THE LITTLE BOOK OF HYGGE, written and read by Meik Wiking, to the fascination with language shared in WORD BY WORD, written and read by Kory Stamper, this category of Best Audiobooks offers delight for the omnivorous autodidact as well as for listeners seeking comfort or advice. There’s comedy in Paula Poundstone reading her own THE TOTALLY UNSCIENTIFIC STUDY OF THE SEARCH FOR HUMAN HAPPINESS. Contemproary racial bias in policing is examined in journalist Matt Taibbi’s I CAN’T BREATHE, read by Dominic Hoffman. Personal and professional development take center stage in OWN IT by Sallie Krawcheck, read by Ellen Archer, and FINISH written and read by Jon Acuff. Continue reading AudioFile Magazine Names Best Nonfiction & Culture Audiobooks 2017

#GivingThanks for Digital Audiobooks

In the opening scene of the new and Sacramento-hatred-drenched movie Lady Bird, the title character and her mother are listening to the closing 30 seconds or so of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath while driving on an August hot highway. They each shed a tear as the audiobook ends and then teenaged Lady Bird pops the cassette—the final of about 20—from the car player and back into its rigid, made-to-crack plastic shell. It’s 2002 and this is how most listeners handle audiobooks. Continue reading #GivingThanks for Digital Audiobooks

StoryCorps and the Great Thanksgiving Listen

Besides engaging with what authors and performers have created through audiobooks, the sound of storytelling extends to creating and listening to family stories, neighborhood stories, captured memories of unwritten, and otherwise unscripted, events, and conversations. The work of StoryCorps addresses this by providing both structure for and preservation of such recordings. Recordings made in StoryCorps booths, which pop up around the country on well publicized schedules, are accepted by the Library of Congress as part of the American archives of cultural and popular history. StoryCorps has won a variety of humanities distinctions, including the Peabody Award (2007).

For several years, StoryCorps has been promoting The Great Thanksgiving Listen, a guided opportunity for those gathered with multiple generations to celebrate the holiday. With the goal of creating “a culture of listening,” this effort points directly to the power of listening in communication, intergenerational honor, and understanding. Directions are specific, simple to follow, and require virtually nothing to attain satisfying results. The event is suggested for families, classes of all ages, and neighborhood gathering places. Continue reading StoryCorps and the Great Thanksgiving Listen

Less than the Sum of its Parts?

In its grasping attempt to move from ubiquitous to monopolizing, Audible’s new come-on for romance genre consumers apparently leaves the concept of audiobook—as in book—behind. Having sliced and diced the genre’s presentation for paying consumers in more ways than the Kama Sutra suggests positions, they’ve just gone to a level of servicing that might leave both authors and narrators—to say nothing of narrating authors—with the frank understanding that it’s not the books that Audible is moving here, just what the company coyly calls the “good parts.”

Audible Romance already has allowed the fans of this one genre to dine freely at their subscription rate while listeners with interests in other genres or topics are kept to a single subscription “free listen” per month. Beyond that, Audible has parsed its romance genre fare and labeled titles for consumers by every imaginable plotting and character trait. In short, Audible makes sure those romance consumers don’t have to make too many discoveries by actually listening to entire audiobooks, eros forbid they might be confronted by unanticipated kinks, lack of kinks, or casting that wanders outside their comfort zones. Continue reading Less than the Sum of its Parts?

Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing

This is the high season for literary award announcements, from the international Nobel Laureate to the Mystery Writers of America’s Anthony Awards. In between come plaudits for the best writing in everything from investigative journalism to lifetime achievement in military literature. Many such award winners have had previous titles recorded as audiobooks; some have the winning title already available in audio format; a few will remain unrecorded, at least in the foreseeable future.

Does a satisfying, literary award-winning book automatically translate into a great listen? This is like asking whether a fantastic cake recipe can be made into delightful cookies. Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on factors that have nothing to do with the print work—the quality of the narrators’ performance, sound engineering care—and a few that do, in fact, connect to what the book is, how the author treats both language and prosody, and whether the content makes sense aloud. Continue reading Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing

Book a Free Skype Visit with a Narrator

The Audio Publishers Association coordinates a literacy initiative, Sound Learning APA, to collect and disseminate research and guidance in support of multimodal literacy. The initiative is run by volunteers with professional backgrounds in teaching, library service, and audiobook distribution and publishing. While the first years of Sound Learning efforts concentrated on collecting and organizing bibliographies and audiographies and publicizing their availability, with other supportive news, through Twitter and Facebook, a new phase is now underway.

A variety of professional narrators, featuring those with backgrounds in teaching, theater direction, and coaching, have also volunteered to become active in Sound Learning’s efforts. Librarians, teachers, and coordinators of book groups or other clubs can now contact Sound Learning to arrange for a free Skype visit with a narrator matched to their needs. (Use “Narrator Skype visit inquiry” as the subject line when emailing). Continue reading Book a Free Skype Visit with a Narrator

Opening the Mind’s Eye

Reading by ear allows for a variety of other activities likely to require sight—running, driving, frosting birthday cakes—or no physical access to sight at all—after all, American audiobook publishing was born of the needs of blind readers. However, as with most things in life, there is a middle way: the opportunity for the sighted, or those with memory of the capacity to engage the world with their eyes, to use no organ other than ears and imagination to conjure the visual elements of what is being read. Eyes can be closed so that even the more or less automatic use of physical vision to track print across a page or screen comes out of play.

To read with the ears in this state of unaccompanied eye input is to give an open field to the images and colors the words and phrasings themselves evoke in the mind. This allows the full measure of works rich in such visual recreations to take center stage within, an experience that can be, in seriousness as well as punnery, heady and exhilarating.

Photo by Irina of Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk

A fine example of this involves an anthology of short stories commissioned to celebrate individual paintings by Edward Hopper. In Sunlight or In Shadow (print Pegasus Books, 2016) was a project of author and demonstrably gifted anthology editor Lawrence Block and comprises 17 short stories by the likes of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Levin, and other well known, critically acclaimed authors. Reading these tales of cravenness, fantastical mystery, and regret would be a rich experience in itself. Continue reading Opening the Mind’s Eye

#audiobookwish X 4

An underutilized hashtag on Twitter points up the books readers wish would migrate into listening format. Some are new titles, many are never-bestsellers that can still be found readily in current print editions, several tagged posts point up the dearth of titles representing affinity groups. Here’s a sampler of what and why readers want to push against the boundaries of audiobook publishing’s current offerings.

#audiobookwish Practice inclusivity in romance, both in print and in audio editions

While it came as no surprise to romance writers of color–nor to many readers of color as well as some who are white–last week’s publication of the Ripped Bodice bookstore’s report “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing, 2016” confirms that the disparity between both writer demographics and publishing attainment is wide. In fact, the romance genre also relies on small publishers to bring out any titles featuring romantic characters who are anywhere in the LGBTQIA family as well. Breaking down that print availability even further, we find an audiobook world in which virtually everyone is white and straight—unless it’s a teen title (both It’s Not Like It’s a Secret and If I Was Your Girl went to audio quickly, for example, and various youth award winning print titles are made into audiobooks ahead of the literary awards they earn). Continue reading #audiobookwish X 4

Publishing and bibliographic jobs below the radar

Some years ago, I was impressed by a speaker at a youth enrichment services providers roundtable who came from a vocational training background and currently worked in publishing house dealing mostly with career preparation materials. The materials she shared included, surprisingly to most of us gathered, board books for toddlers as well as interactive books for older children. These were not the “When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter” flavor: instead, they exposed kids to the actual doing of things that could eventually engage their interests in jobs beyond the Top 10 every high school student recognizes as the likely “only” options.*

A few industries are good—usually at the behest of union pressure—about exposing the fact of certain jobs existing. Think about the rolling credits after a movie. While such denominating for public view doesn’t explain what exactly the key grip or best boy does functionally, the job titles are there. And there are jobs called out in the credits as well that make intuitive sense while not, more than likely, getting much air time when the conversation turns to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Once it’s noted as a possibility, however, costume designer strikes a chord that could turn into a wholly satisfying career. Continue reading Publishing and bibliographic jobs below the radar

Hearing the Unacceptable

The not-quite-well-named Banned Books Week is upon us again, with the annual ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s collection of books most frequently named in community-level challenges to fittedness for someone other than the complainant and their own children to read. This year’s list has the typical earmarks of negativity aimed at books that speak to kids at those scary ages when they are demonstrating a new level of independence from parental control: the newly minted kindergartener, the middle schooler entering adolescence, the not-quite-out-of-the-house teen who can get out and about readily without parental assist. The remainder of the Top 10 Troublemakers speaks to the American shadow disposition of Puritanism: the frank recognition of sexual behaviors, the use of proscribed language, and authorship by someone later charged with crimes.

Calling out issues of intellectual freedom regarding specifically audiobook content has, at the level of national attention, been rooted in content that remains identical between print and spoken formats, with challengers who are cited objecting to the same works in audiobook as in print and for the same reasons. Five years ago, Professor Teri LeSesne predicted the likelihood of growth in the audiobook challenge industry, again noting works in trouble due to what the authors wrote, not to hearing-specific aspect of the written. As more audiobooks are produced and available, and with audiobook publishing for children and youth—the primary targets of books that meet community challenges—reflecting new and critically reviewed authors and print works, it becomes increasingly easy to find audiobook editions of titles on the list of troublemaking titles. Continue reading Hearing the Unacceptable

An Auspicious Day to Use Your Words—and Learn More

An essential aspect of early education, formal and informal and in every human culture, is coaching the very young to communicate articulately. Through explicit means, such as the preschool teacher’s
reminder to “Use your words [rather than slap the kid who just hurt your feelings]” to the implicit demand that responding when asked a question is required, we work at sharing, preserving, and refining language to serve our purposes as a social fabric.

With Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday noted by Google and other less pervasive sources today, it’s a good time to consider how audiobooks and listening to language both maintain and expand each generation’s capacity to understand, speak, and choose the most appropriate words each individual can to keep that social fabric strong and dynamic.

It’s important to note at the outset that Johnson did not exclude himself from a rich social life, nor limit himself to a single neighborhood. He traveled. He made and maintained friendships. He read widely as well as writing. For Johnson, articulation wasn’t a sterile exercise but a garden to work, feed, and celebrate.

Listening to rich language, crafted by authors who make their characters both credible and relatable, and performed by narrators who understand both the rhythms of the writer and the needs of the audience, serves as a direct route to vocabulary building, flexibility in personal expression, and empathy development. Audiobooks ensure language as a lived experience, without regard to whatever verbal poverty or carelessness a child’s home might afford. For many, listening to audiobooks may be one of the few occasions when spoken language is both directed at them and demands no immediate action, simply inviting the warm bath of soaking in words, phrases, meaningful intonations that range across a wide spectrum of emotions and intentions, and opportunities to be held rapt.

While more American parents claim to understand and follow the advice that reading aloud to children from a young age is important, Scholastic’s 2017 Kids and Family Reading Report shows a drop off in following this advice from about age 6, just as kids are developing a deeper capacity to understand how to use words and phrasing independently and increasing in their emotional capacity for empathy That poor timing in pulling away from family-shared reading aloud can find some mitigation in access to hearing increasingly sophisticated narrative lines, more varied accents, and exposure to situations that are unfamiliar to any one individual listener by making sure that listening to books is not considered done and dusted for the school aged child.

If we want to assure a future in which understanding is more readily available through verbal communication than through physical power assertions, let’s share the joys of listening to language.


Who’s Testing Listening Comprehension?

With the new K-12 school year under way or on the verge, American elementary and middle school administrators are focused on “proving” that the kids in their districts are learning or “know” how to read. Several corporate entrepreneurs are on board to continue to make money through mass, data-driven program packages that administrators buy as a demonstration that care is being taken to “prove” kids are able to think about what they read. Lexile® leveling and Renaissance’s Accelerated Reading programs are probably the ones most commonly recognized both by families and library staff who are regularly asked to find books that respond to company profiles created of their students.

Individual student Lexile assessments are drawn from state testing results. The circularity is obvious and is discussed at length and critically in scholarly and popular publications. Renaissance’s Star Reading™ assessments are presented as “guiding” developing readers through increased skill levels by diagnosing their readiness through prepackaged tests. This approach, of course, has, like Lexiling, its proponents, as well as an increasingly voluble number of professional detractors. Continue reading Who’s Testing Listening Comprehension?

When teachers forget how to listen

With the new American school year either poised to open or already entering its fifth or sixth day (depending on local practices), many classrooms are hearing the voice of just one of the room’s occupants. Teachers need to manage both their students’ learning opportunities and their interactive behaviors and, most typically, this is achieved in the 21st century by word of mouth: orally delivered directions, admonitions, and that warning shot of calling out a particular student by name.

Or calling out some syllables that the teacher is has decided suits the need for a name as well as does the actual name of the student. In the multilingual, multiethnic classrooms—and even in the comparatively homogenous one in which not everyone bears a three- to five-letter moniker shared by generations of English speakers—the expert in what to call the students isn’t the teacher. The wise would-be classroom manager simply asks. And then listens to what the student with eleven syllables and only four consonants pronounces.

Continue reading When teachers forget how to listen