Books on tape, books on CD, books in whatever audio format you favor - If you have a lot of down time like long drives, commutes, flights, etc., being able to listen to a book when you couldn't otherwise just sit and read is a real convenience. But (and you knew there would be a But) - listening to a book is a trade off. There are pluses, minuses - and alternatives.
Discussion ensues below the Orange Omnilepticon.
The advantages of being able to listen to a book are simple. If for some reason you can't sit and turn pages or look at a screen of an E-reader, but you can put your ears to work, that's not a bad deal. Some people find it difficult to just read - but they can listen more easily. If that's the only way you can manage to access something you've really wanted to take in, by all means do so.
The problem is, translating something intended to be a completely visual experience to an audible format means you inevitably lose things in the translation. Footnotes are a problem, as are strange words, pictures, charts and diagrams. You miss the cues that come from formatting on a page - paragraphs, text in bold or italics or parentheses, those little graphic dingbats that indicate some kind of scene change in the middle of a chapter, and so on.
Going back to re-read something you missed the first time or didn't quite get - it's a lot easier to flip pages than zip back and forth through a sound file. Plus, for me personally I've found I can read faster than I can listen.
Then there's exactly how a book has been translated into something you can listen to that matters as well. Who are you listening to? Do they have a voice that's pleasant to your ear? If the reader is someone with a distinctive voice, especially if they are known for certain roles, does that add or subtract to the listening experience?
What are they reading? Books of facts and ideas would seem to be straightforward enough - speaking with clarity and comprehension of the subject matter is the primary goal, or so I'd think. But what about works of fiction? How does one person handle different characters? Dialog versus descriptions, or internal thoughts not intended to be 'spoken' by a character? Moments of suspense, tragedy, intimacy - those cry out for extra work by the reader-vocalist. Are they up to it - and are they reading it the way the author really meant it to be voiced?
What I'm getting at is that an audio experience has different strengths and weaknesses compared to a visual experience, and vice versa. In an ideal world, moving a literary work from one format to the other should be accompanied by changes intended to make the best use of that format. Not only that, there should be works created solely to make best use of the strengths of that format. There used to be a lot more material out there intended to be heard and not seen.
In these days of Clear Channel pre-packaged radio deserts, brain-dead shock jocks, talk radio demagogues, and preachers of the air wave gospels, it's difficult to appreciate that radio used to do much, much more. Drama, comedy, mystery, fantasy - radio used to be a much richer medium. Many of the early stars of television were people who'd made the transition from radio. (And in doing so, 'video killed the radio star.')
Voice actors. Sound effects. Music. All things a straight audio transcription of a book usually doesn't have. The extra dimension that makes up for what an audio experience can't do visually. (And sometimes less is more!)
You can still find programming variety like this on college radio stations, niche markets, and public radio. And you can now find much, much more. The internet and Apple gave us podcasts, an idea which has taken off. Internet radio makes it possible to hear programming from around the world, and gives old material new outlets. It's a new opportunity for creative people to put works together for the audio experience and distribute it by download.
A Prairie Home Companion has been doing old school radio for decades: musical variety, drama, comedy - you name it. Weekly podcasts about comics? Try Comic Dorks. ZBS Media has been doing radio drama since the 70's: Jack Flanders, Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe, The Android Sisters and more in a variety of audio formats. (Try a free 25 minute adventure of Dixon & Sparks as they turn detective skills to a missing person case with a new age twist.) Looking for variety? News? Stories? Try This American Life or The Moth. And this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what's out there.
So, what have your ears been up to lately? What's the best audio book you ever heard - and why? Is there a podcast you absolutely must download the minute it becomes available? Do you listen to books on CD? Classic radio adventure/dramas re-released? Comedy? Something that defies categorization? Are there radio programs you download to hear at your leisure? Something else?
Feel free to share - or vent if that takes your fancy.