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Read, then Heard Again: Why Audiobooks Make the Re-Read Feel New Again

More so than most other genres, fantasy aficionados live and die by the “re-read.” Sure, fans of mysteries, thrillers, horror, chick lit, etc. re-read their favorite books. But how often does an Alex Cross fan read every appearance of the character, chronologically, before reading the newest installment?

The Eye of the World (cover)Exactly.

However, when anticipating the release of the 14th and final book of a series spanning over 20 years, the only logical course of action for most fantasy fans is to re-read books 1-13 in preparation. Right? I know it isn’t just me…

Fantasy readers prefer to gorge themselves. Like a rapacious horde of geek-Galactus figures, fantasy readers devour books…and they hunger. But by that third, fifth or thirteenth re-read, even the best fantasy series can be a bit…bland. Put another way, steak is great every once and awhile. But if you ate it every day, it would be just another hunk of meat…unless you discovered a NEW AND EXCITING WAY TO EAT STEAK. Audiobooks, if done well, can be that new and exciting way to eat steak. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Like many of you reading this piece, I’ve read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire multiple times. The interminable wait between volumes and the seemingly unquenchable desire for as much of Martin’s world as possible, nearly guarantees that I read the series twice per year. Minimum. When the second season of Game of Thrones came to a close last month, I was depressed. I wanted to stay in Westeros. But I was on a bit of a streak with other books, and I didn’t want to sacrifice my broadening horizons for yet another re-read. A quandary, to be sure. But one I soon solved.

A Game of Thrones (cover)Having heard whispers of Roy Dotrice’s world record performance of A Game of Thrones, I obtained a copy of the audiobook, loaded it on my iDevice and…boom, I was hooked. Sure, I’d read the books. Watched the series. Spent way too much time on the requisite websites and message boards. But hearing Dotrice’s nuanced, multi-voiced delivery of this story I know so well was, frankly, a revelation. What was old was new again.

As great as Dotrice’s performance is, however, it was fact that Martin’s words were being read aloud that made the audiobook an excellent substitute for yet another re-read. Individual chapters ranged from 15-20 minutes to nearly an hour or more. I would say that the average chapter took 30-45 minutes to listen to. Personally, I would have read three chapters in the same amount of time. The languid, deliberate delivery prevented the (very natural) inclination to skip words and sentences here and there. The story slowed to a crawl, and I found myself anticipating lines, paragraphs and chapters like I never did when actually re-reading the books. It demanded attention in a way far different than did the printed word.

Furthermore, I can now experience ASOIAF nearly anywhere. Whether commuting to work, at my desk at the office, or doing mundane activities like cutting grass or working out, Westeros is only a pair of headphones away. Have you ever tried operating a lawnmower with your Kindle in one hand? It just doesn’t work. I’ve found audiobooks to be as liberating as they are revelatory.

I’ve tried audiobooks in the past, with novels I had not previously read. It just didn’t work. Lapses in concentration, interruptions, mislabeled mp3’s—it was too easy to miss too much. But a re-read of material that has already been digested provides the perfect opportunity to engage with the material in an entirely new way.

Listening to BooksThere are a few caveats. Sometimes audiobooks are abridged. Imagine my chagrin when, as a precocious ten-year-old I plunked down some hard earned cash for the cassette version of Dragons of Autumn Twilight only to find that large chunks of the story were missing. Other audiobooks can lack in production quality, which can destroy the illusion of being transported to another world. But careful perusal of what you’re purchasing can prevent such disappointments. Most “major” fantasy releases are getting the full, unabridged treatment these days. Rothfuss, Brett, Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest, and Joe Abercrombie’s books—they’re all available in audiobook format. And the “classics” such as The Wheel of Time, Brook’s Shannara series, Pratchett’s Discworld novels and all of Tolkien’s works are available. All are series that fans read, re-read, and then read again.

In a genre littered with worn out tropes, thousand-page opuses and multi-volume epics, finding new ways to attack the same stories isn’t always easy. But if you were contemplating cracking open that worn Eye of the World paperback to start your WOT re-read before January’s conclusion, you may want to give the audiobook a try instead. You may find, as I did, that what was old is new again.

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14 Comments

  1. Listening to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria novels at the moment. Read the series back in February and just got the audiobooks. As it happens, I had the free podiobooks.com version of Crown Conspiracy at first and I enjoyed the experience, although the voice-acting didn’t do much for me. Then I bought the Theft of Swords audiobook and I’m re-hooked!! Tim is a great narrator!!

  2. Avatar Trevin says:

    The audiobook versions of the Scott Lynch “Gentlemen Bastards” novels are absolutely fantastic – I’d already read them, but the narrator for these was pitch perfect. Not surprised he was nominated for some sort of award for them. Michael Page is able to do various different accents that helped capture the feel of things and make the story so gripping. Even when I already knew what was going to happen.

  3. I could not agree more! I am rabid devourer of audiobooks, particularly of the fantasy bent. Many times I’ll listen to the audiobook while I am reading the Kindle or physical version (like you mentioned, while working out, mowing the lawn, and commuting to work) so I get maximum immersion in the book. Though my favorite thing to do is listen to audiobooks of things I have already read. We are of a like mind, it makes the re-read so much more entertaining. My favorite fantasy series is C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and have read it many times over. Recently Audible.com released all her works in unabridged audio version. I immediately nabbed the Coldfire series and have been listening to it and it feels like reading it for the first time again. The reader, R.C. Bray, does a fantastic job with the narration, making Tarrant come alive.

    Excellent post and I am glad to meeting another Audiobook fan!

  4. Avatar Zack Matzo says:

    A great narrator is ESSENTIAL to the experience. I liken it to comics: bad art can ruin even the best story. The last thing you want when listening to an audiobook is to have a narrator who is constantly taking you “out” of the story due to a poor performance. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

    Might I recommend going with Graphic Audio. Expensive, but great stuff.

  6. Avatar Farah Mendlesohn says:

    I used the audio of Diana Wynne Jones books extensively when writing my critical book on her work. I’m a speed reader and it forced me to slow down, so I heard things I hadn’t noticed when reading.

  7. Avatar Bob says:

    I do most of my reading now in audio. Love the audio reread. I reread The Stand and Swan Song recently in Audio, and despite the fact I had read these books numerous times, i found something new in each of them in audio.

    I have to say, i do better with Fantasy in audio. I’m really excited that Malazan will be coming out in audio. It’s one series I wish I read, but haven’t.

  8. Avatar Lizzie says:

    Wonderful article and I wholeheartedly agree. I had read LOTR many times over the years but discovering Rob Inglis narrating them brought the profoundly closer than I’d been in years to Middle Earth.
    I also find Jim Dale’s Harry Potter renditions utterly delightful.
    Looking forward to the Wheel of Time on audio now!

  9. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Sad to say, I am one of those folks that hasn’t read the Potter books. I may give the audiobooks a go when I finish A Dance With Dragons. As for the Tolkien works, they are phenomenal I audio format as well. Particularly The Hobbit. A great way to introduce kids that aren’t quite of reading age to Middle Earth. Maybe not as good as a musical cartoon…but still…

    • Avatar Johnnieholic says:

      Jim Dale’s harry potter was good but Stephen Fry’s is the best in my opinion. you can find audio on youtube of both reading the same thing to see who you want to listen too. I think its awesome that if you can find the books you have a choice of narrators.

  10. Avatar Jon B says:

    Great article! I am a relative newbie in the realm of Fantasy, but after watching GOT on HBO, I was left wanting. I’ve always been a fan of audiobooks, so I went straight to Roy Dotrice. After catching up on all the available Martin books, i have been voraciously devouring fantasy audiobooks. I have pretty much stopped watching TV, and have probably listened to 50+ audiobooks since Game of Thrones season finale. Kingkiller Chronicles, Ryira Revelations, Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, Chronicles of the Black Company, Dresden Files, Demon Cycle, Mistborn, and even The Immortal Nicholas Flamell. The Iron Druid Chronicles started off as a guilty pleasure, but I’ve begun to lose interest in it, so I just decided to take the plunge on WOT. I’m about half way through The Eye of the World, and it looks like I’ve found something to tide me over for awhile longer. I hate to admit that I’m not really that fond of women narrators, which has limited me on some books that the story line seemed interesting enough, but it’s just a personal preference. I guess it’s maybe because I kinda grew up listening to traditional male narrators. I digress. Thanks again for the great article, and I hope that sharing some of my favorites might give someone else some suggestions. Happy listening!

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