When I listened to a roundtable discussion among professional audiobook narrators, I had no trouble understanding them. Then they put on an audiobook performance. I no longer understood what they said. This is a problem I have with audiobooks.
I was working on a task with my hands. Generally, I can listen to podcasts and talking-heads-videos-without-much-visual-content while working with my hands and understand everything. Audiobooks… not so much. Yes, when I don’t move my hands and pay full attention to audiobooks, I understand them, but if my attention must be undivided, I’d rather read a book in print. Freeing my hands and eyes to do things is the only advantage audio content has over reading, at least for me.
Even though I started learning Mandarin as an adult, I can listen to a Mandarin language talk show like 锵锵三人行 while doing simple/mindless tasks and still follow what they are saying. (I can’t do complicated tasks with my hands and follow 锵锵三人行). Even though English is my native language, I often can’t even do simple tasks and understand the professional audiobook narrator at the same time. How the heck is it harder to understand something in my native language than something in a non-native language?
(Yes, Mandarin language audiobooks also require my undivided attention, but that’s to be expected since Mandarin isn’t my native language.)
Why is narration by professionals so hard to understand? Shouldn’t professional narrators be as easy to understand as a mediocre amateur podcaster? Or is it just me?
This is the question I investigated.
One type of audiobook is consistently easy for me to understand, even when my hands are busy. I would have never guessed it if I hadn’t learned from experience. The type of audiobook I consistently understand with ease is… machine voice audiobooks.
That’s right, I’d rather listen to machine voice narration than most professional audiobook narrators.
For a long time, I found it strange that understood machine voice narrators much more easily than professional human narrators. Now I’ve figured it out… I’ll explain it later.
That doesn’t mean I like machine voice audiobooks. They just pass the minimal bar of being understandable even when my eyes and hands are occupied.
Is it just me? My internet searches say the answer is an emphatic no. Many people struggle to understand audiobooks, much more than they struggled to understand other audio content, such as podcasts. Reddit has multiple threads about this, and I’ve also found book bloggers who have trouble understanding audiobooks. Do 0.5%, 5%, or 50% readers struggle with audiobooks? I don’t know the proportions, all I know is that I am far from alone.
On Reddit, audiobook fans give the following bits of advice to people who have difficulty with audiobooks:
- Find an audiobook narrator you love
- Start with this [particularly good] audiobook
- Memoirs are better
- First person POV novels are better than third person POV novels
- Self-narrated audiobooks (i.e. narrated by the book’s author) are better than professionally-narrated audiobooks
- You just need to practice listening to audiobooks
These bits of advice intrigue me. First, I have listened to part of one of the most frequently recommended audiobooks. Though it passed the minimal bar of being understandable, I didn’t like it. At first, I thought I didn’t like the book… but when I read a paperback copy, I liked the book much, much better. The problem was with the audio narration, not the writing. My uncle, who is an audiobook fan, also disliked that audiobook. He claims he disliked the book, not the narration, but I wonder…
I found nobody–NOBODY–who prefers professional narrators over self-narrators. Some people prefer self-narrators in general, some people are fans of a particular professional narrator, but nobody prefers professional narrators in general.
As far as ‘you just need to get used to it’… I wonder, how much do I have to try audiobooks before I conclude that they don’t work for me? Is listening to a few audiobooks enough? A few hundred? At what point can I conclude that I’ve had enough practice listening to audiobooks that more practice isn’t going to help me understand them?
The recommendation that memoirs work better, especially self-narrated memoirs, is revealing. One of the most highly recommended audiobooks is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s a self-narrated memoir by a professional entertainer. If any audiobook is going to succeed, it’s that one. I listened to the sample while working with my hands, and I had no trouble understanding what Trevor Noah said. Though I haven’t listened to the entire audiobook (I have read the book in print), that sample convinced me that it’s a splendid choice for people who have difficulty with audiobooks.
Authors reading aloud their own works can be all over the place. Some authors suck at reading aloud. Some, while reading aloud, bring their writing to life. Publishers don’t ask authors who suck at reading aloud to narrate audiobooks, so self-narrated audiobooks are by authors who are at least okay at reading aloud their own work. But how do they do it better than professional narrators?
Why aren’t professional narrators as easy to understand as mediocre amateur podcasters? Why are machine voices easier to understand than trained/experienced humans? Why do some authors suck at reading aloud their work? Why do some authors outperform professional narrators? Why are memoirs the easiest audiobooks to understand?
I read part of There’s Money Where You Mouth Is by Elaine Clark, the ‘bible’ of the voiceover industry, including audiobook narration. The book answers the above questions, but the answers require explanation. The explanation is in Part 2.