The beginner’s great big guide to audiobooks.

Everything you need to know to get started with audiobooks: how to choose which books to listen to, how to find the best narrators, which service to use, the benefits of paid services, plus a ton of resources for finding audiobooks for free or cheap. A must read for beginners; experienced fans are sure to find a few new favorites. When we were first married, Will and I listened to a lot of audiobooks together. We were rehabbing houses, and the books made the hours spent painting go by faster. We listened to The Professor and the Madman together while we were fixing up our kitchen and were hooked.

The technology has changed: it’s not as easy as popping a cd into the player anymore. Many readers want to try audiobooks, but are intimidated by the process of getting started. This guide is for you.

(If you’re an experienced audiobook listener, I hope you learn a few things and find some new titles you love.)

Why audiobooks?

There are lots of reasons:

• To “read” when your hands are occupied. This is my #1 reason.
• To redeem the time, like for a road trip, a daily commute, or folding the laundry.
• For kids who are too young to read to themselves. (Parents get hoarse, and tired.)
• For those who are unable to physically read, permanently or just in the moment, like when you’re feeling blah, or when your eyes are tired, or old.

What makes a great audiobook?

Individual tastes aside, not every book makes a great audiobook.

Style:

I love gorgeous novels, but I don’t like to listen to them. My brain does much better processing a complex, literary book when I can see the words on the page.

(One exception: I love to listen to great literary fiction on the re-read: Jayber Crow is great on audio the second time through, but it’s too much to handle on the first.)

Narration:

A bad narrator can ruin a good book, but a great narrator can’t save a bad one. If anyone claims to have a favorite audiobook narrator, it’s probably Jim Dale. Everyone loves Jim Dale.

On Audible, reviews are broken into 3 categories: story, performance, and overall. Tastes differ, but it still helps to distinguish the good from the bad.

How I choose:

I personally choose audiobooks that have:

• compelling stories. (No zoning out!)
• smart, but not literary fiction. No gorgeous prose.
• fantastic narrators. Bonus points for a winning accent.
• not a requirement, but books that have a lot of dialect make great listening (and frequently, annoying reading). Think Tom Sawyer, The Invention of Wings, These Is My Words.
• many hours of listening, if I’m using an Audible credit. I want to get the most listening out of that credit! (I listened to hundreds of hours of Outlander  on Audible. It didn’t hurt that Davina Porter’s narration was fabulous.)
• I often listen to brand-new releases that I don’t think I want to own, but have a serious library waiting list. I love using my Audible credits to get hot new books with no waiting.

I don’t typically choose content that would make an HSP squirm. When I’m reading a physical book, it’s easy enough to skim—or even skip—over violence or lots of language. It’s harder to avoid when it’s right in your ears.

How does it work?

There are many ways to find and listen to audiobooks. We’ll start with my favorite, Audible.com.

the beginner's guide to audiobooks

How to use Audible.com

When it comes to audiobooks, Audible is the service to beat. The Audible app is my favorite way to listen to audiobooks, for its everywhere access and ease of use.

I like Audible for their …

• extensive, high-quality library
• ability to search by title, author, or narrator
• reviews of the books and the narrators
• ability to listen to a sample before you buy
• clear indication of whether a title is abridged
• ability to listen at multiple speeds (.75, 1.25, 1.5, 2.0 …)
• ability to quickly rewind or fast forward 30 seconds (or whatever increment you choose, mine is set at 20 seconds)
• you can listen to your Audible purchases on up to 4 computers and 3 devices of each type

It’s not a free service (alas!) but it’s a good value for me because of …

Free 30-day trial
• daily deals that anyone can purchase, member or not (although sadly, they are U.S. and Canadian only at this time). This is a great way to try the service.
• members-only sales (more on that below)
• cheap audio versions if you own the ebook for many titles.
• their “great listen guarantee”: if you don’t like an audiobook, just exchange it—with no questions asked
• you own your audiobooks, even if you cancel your membership

How Audible credits work

Most new subscribers choose the gold plan, which gives you 1 credit per month. 1 book = 1 credit, regardless of whether the cash purchase price would be $8 or $48.

If you don’t want a recurring monthly charge—and don’t need to accumulate more credits—, you can put your account on hold. (To do this, click to chat with a customer service rep from the site. I’ve had great experiences on at least 3 separate occasions.) Though on hiatus, you still retain member benefits like being able to purchase titles at the member’s 30% discount rate (which I never do) and participate in their member-only sales (which I do all the time).

How to listen to your Audible audiobooks

Sign up for a free trial or choose a membership plan (don’t stress about which plan to pick—you can switch at any time). Purchase an audiobook, then download the free Audible app. You can then download your purchases to your device and start listening. (You can’t buy an audiobook straight from your phone: plan ahead for those road trips!)

About those big sales

Audible runs frequent member-only promotions (although you can participate if you’re on a free trial). Past sales have included:

• a 2-for-1 promotion, which offered 2 books for 1 credit from a selected list. I got Americanah (terrific) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (haven’t listened yet).
• a huge children’s lit sale, where I picked up a slew of Beverly Cleary books for $2.95 each.
• half-price sales, where popular audiobooks are on sale for half off.

big hits

Right now they’re running a Big Hits sale (that ends tonight, 1/27/15 at midnight EST): 150+ best-selling, highly reviewed audiobooks are on sale for $6.95 each. These titles are catching my eye, although there are truly too many good ones to list here:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
Faithful Place by Tana French (I don’t know if I could handle listening to this because of the language and content, but I love the sense of place the Irish accent invokes)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, with a full cast recording.
The Professor and the Madman (Will and I both loved this—highly recommended)
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author
Stardust by Neil Gaiman, read by the author
Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth (although my HSP self might rather read than listen)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. I wasn’t a fan of this collection, but if you want to hear Sedaris reading his own work, here’s your chance. (Major warnings apply.)

These are just 13 of 167 titles. I’m interested in at least a third of them—too many to list! (If you’re not a member, these will appear to be at full price, but they are $6.95 through midnight EST on 1/27/15 to members. The full sale list is available for members to view. I wish i

Other sources for audiobooks

Audible’s not the only game in town. Other options include:

The library

The library is a great resource for old school audiobooks on compact disc. These are easy to listen to if you’re in the car, or have a cd player handy. My kids can operate these easily. Just keep a pen and paper handy to jot down your place.

Libraries also carry nifty little orange devices called Playaways. Imagine a dedicated one-book iPod: all you need are headphones and a triple A battery.

Some libraries have another great resource at their disposal: it deserves its own category.

The OverDrive app (via your local library)

OverDrive is a service that lets you easily borrow materials from your local library. With the OverDrive app, you can borrow ebooks, audiobooks, and videos—if these items are in your library’s collection. (If your library doesn’t own it, you can’t borrow it—even though the item will be indexed in the OverDrive app.)

I’m jealous of the many MMD readers who tell me they frequently borrow audiobooks through the OverDrive app. I adore my local library, but they have zero digital audiobooks. They’ve chosen to invest their funds elsewhere, which I can certainly appreciate. And they do have an extensive ebook collection.

To get started, use the library finder on overdrive.com (or in OverDrive’s app) to browse your library (or school’s) collection.

If you’re having trouble, ask for help at your local library.

Spotify

Spotify has an extensive collection of audiobooks, but the quality of the narrators is hit or miss. (They do have an extensive Jim Weiss collection: my kids love him.)

To browse the collection, click Browse > Genres & Mood > Word. You can also search for any audiobook’s title from the home screen.

A free account works fine for desktop use, but it can be difficult to listen on-the-go because only premium accounts can turn off shuffle play for mobile.

(To unshuffle: create a playlist for your chosen audiobook. Select the playlist in the app. Start any track, then open that track by tapping the bar at the bottom of the screen. You’ll see two symbols that utilize arrows at the bottom screen. Tap the arrow symbol that resembles an “x” until it appears white, not green.)

The Audiobooks app

This free app (by Cross Forward Consulting, LLC) features recordings from Librivox’s extensive collection of free public domain audiobooks. The narrators are hit or miss, and chapter breaks are marked by recorded Librivox disclaimers. But it’s free.

The app also has 263 higher-quality, disclaimer-free titles available for $.99 each, or $7.99 to access the complete collection.

Cracker Barrel

You can rent audiobooks (on cd) from Cracker Barrels nationwide for $3.49 per week.

Here’s how it works: buy an audiobook at any Cracker Barrel location. Return it when you’re done, and they’ll refund you your purchase price less $3.49 for each week you had it.

Crowd-pleasing favorites

If you’re not sure where to start, choose from these crowd-pleasing favorites.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Harry Potter series. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. View more of my favorite audiobooks (and some of yours) here.

We also listen to a lot of kids’ audiobooks. If you’re a grown-up and you’ve never listened to Peter and the Starcatchers, or The Little House Series, or Neil Patrick Harris read Beverly Cleary, you are missing out. View 40 favorite audiobooks for kids right here.

What else do you want to know? What are your best audiobooks tips? Share away in comments. 

How reading is saving this young mom’s life (or at least her sanity)

How Reading Can Save

Please join me in welcoming Becca of Making Room to the blog!

It is a truth universally acknowledged by every parent of young children:

Life with little kids is hard.

So parents need a creative or intellectual outlet – an activity to do after the kids are in bed, to talk about on the playground, and to share with the world as their Passion In Addition to Parenting.

What is your outlet? Some moms I know make beautiful things with their hands, like my friend Tara: she works as a nurse and makes gorgeous jewelry in her spare time. Some moms love to run, like my friend Tracy: she tracks her progress in minutes, miles, and amazing races. Still others write beautiful essays, create amazing recipes, and develop a photography business at home.

And me? Besides dreaming about doing all those other things, I love to read.

As my children have become more numerous and more talkative, I’ve clung to reading more than ever. According to Goodreads, the year my first child was born, I read about 30 books. The next year I read 54. This year I’m hoping for at least 65. Maybe even 70!

Why reading? Well, reading is sort of lazy, meaning it is deliciously relaxing. It requires sitting down, ceasing all conversation, and being told a story. For an introvert like me, this is not only peaceful – it is also restorative and absolutely necessary for survival.

Reading is also something that cannot be undone. The floors don’t stay clean. The dishes don’t stay washed. The children don’t stay full.

But the books stay read.

Once you have read a page, a chapter, another book, it’s yours forever. When you finish a book, close the cover, and slip it onto your shelf, you can look at it in your messy, crazy home and think, “I read that, and it was good. That is one thing in this house that won’t change.”

And lastly, reading is also very quantifiable. You read a book, and you have read one book. You read 10 books, and you’ve read 10 books. Ten books! That takes work. You can set a goal, and you can achieve it, all while sitting in bed, turning pages, and being mentally fed and sustained. That’s no small thing for a parent.

But there were stages in my life when nothing on my bedside table interested me, and when I couldn’t imagine sustaining interest in a book. Slowly, that has changed, and I think there is one main reason: I have discovered my genre.

It’s hard to read anything when you don’t know what you’ll enjoy. But when you discover a category of book that really starts you turning pages, you can jump from one good read to another without wavering in between.

Thanks to Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading list, I finally discovered this year that my favorite genre is women’s fiction. When I tell people this, no one has any idea what I mean, so I’ve come up with this very simple definition: it’s like chick lit or romance, but deeper.

It’s girl meets boy, but the girl is a lot more messed up and the boy is a lot less of a hero and there will be serious issues thrown in there too, like mental illness or euthanasia or abuse. It might be historical fiction (Pride and Prejudice falls in this category) or it might be brand spanking new (like Big Little Lies). Once I plugged into this genre and discovered new-to-me authors like Jojo Moyes and Kate Morton, I was on a roll.

I also finally admitted I love memoirs, usually by women, usually modern. Food writing (like A Homemade Life or Bread and Wine) or personal growth (like Carry On, Warrior or The Happiness Project) are favorite memoir topics for me.

Oh, and one last genre. You’ll probably laugh, but here it is. I love pretty much anything about France. From Julia Child’s memoir to Parisian life advice to parenting guides, it doesn’t matter. And since reading – at least for me as a mom – is all about having fun and learning, I just go with it.

Here are a few tips that I use to keep wonderful books piling up – and flying off – my bedside table:

  • Start with something that looks fun, and don’t let other people’s opinions stop you.
  • Figure out the format that works best for you: tablet or audio or real paper.
  • Learn your library (especially the hold system) so that you always have a stream of free and interesting books trickling your way.
  • And bring the book with you everywhere. Modern Mrs. Darcy taught me this one! You never know when you’ll have some downtime.

As you change diapers, make lunches, bandage boo-boos, and read books, I’ll be right there with you. Happy reading!

Becca is a military wife and mother of two who recently moved from Sicily, Italy, to San Diego, California. She writes about simplicity parenting, everyday hospitality, and growing up overseas on her blog, Making Room.

There are 7 ways to hate a book.

7 ways to hate a book

I just finished a book with hundreds of Amazon reviews that average 4.4 stars. It has thousands of Goodreads reviews: average rating 3.99. I’ve read multiple good longform reviews, and have heard good things from readers I know.

I hated it. 

It wasn’t a bad book. But it wasn’t the book for me.

That’s a frequent reason for not liking a book, and that got me thinking: how many ways are there to hate a book? 

I came up with 7. I’m eager to hear what you would add to the list.

7 ways to hate a book:

1. The book shouldn’t have been published in the first place.

Some people believe there are no “bad” books, only books that haven’t found the right reader. I disagree. Most books aren’t hopeless, but they needed a great editor, a thorough overhaul, or both before they saw the light of day.

2. You’re in the wrong place.

Sometimes a great book catches you in the wrong place. Maybe it’s over your head right now: you’re too young to appreciate it, you need to grow into it. Maybe you’re literally in the wrong location. Maybe your book is begging to be read at a desk, with a pen in hand, but you’re trying to read it by the pool, with a piña colada.

Maybe you’re trying to read The Fault in Our Stars right after a cancer diagnosis, or This is the Story of a Happy Marriage during your friend’s brutal divorce. The book isn’t bad, but the timing is terrible.

The right place, the right time: two underlooked criteria for loving a book.

3. Great plot, no style.

We’ve all read books like these: there’s a good story buried in there somewhere, but the painful telling turns what should be a pleasure into a slog.

There are so many ways the style can go wrong. A sampling:

• terrible, horrible dialogue
• wordiness
• awkward or nonsensical writing
• cliché-ridden plotlines and typed characters
• heavy-handed storytelling (my personal pet peeve).

5. Great style, no plot.

The writing is lovely but nothing happens. Ever.

6. The book is pulling all your triggers.  

You have yours; I have mine. Some readers carefully screen out books whose plots revolve around scary stuff like sexual abuse. Some readers shun sex scenes and salty language. Some readers pass on plots that revolve around cancer, unjust accusations, or domestic violence.

If a book slips through your screening process and your trigger becomes a major plot point on page 187—you’re going to hate the book.

7. It’s just not for you.

This was my problem with the book I just finished. It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t for me. That’s okay. Maybe it’s the book for you.

What is missing from this list?

P.S. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five.

Our living room “library.”

Our living room "library" uses IKEA Borgsjo bookshelves as its foundation

Finally—a house update!

My sister-in-law helped me create the plans for our large-ish living room. We segmented it into two sections: a library “room” anchored by two IKEA bookshelves, and a sitting “room” anchored by a large sectional.

(I highly recommend persuading your brother to marry a designer. Breaking down a large room into two “rooms” was something I wouldn’t have tried without guidance.)

In the library area, we wanted space to display our books, a small desk, and plenty of storage. We had a small budget for the room and we spent most of it on the sectional. (More on that in a future post.)

Our living room "library" uses IKEA Borgsjo bookshelves as its foundation

I thought about doing built-ins (or fake built-ins) but we decided to go with the Borgsjö bookshelves, at least for the time being.

My designer recommended the Borgsjö bookshelves based on size, style, and price, but I couldn’t find any reviews online. Even at our “local” IKEA (a two-hour drive for us) they were only displayed in one place on the sales floor. We decided to go with them anyway.

IKEA borgsjo puffin classics puffin clothbound classics

shown: the Puffin paperbook classics 16 book set that showed up under my Christmas tree and the Puffin clothbound hardcover box set that I snagged for myself at a pre-Christmas sale.

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve now lived with them for six months. Here’s the lowdown.

colorful bookshelves

After we snapped these photos, I went to town with color on the bottom shelf. Highlights, in order: classic Nancy Drew mysteries, The Mother Daughter Book Club hardcovers, Little House, Noel Streatfeild’s shoe books, the Beverly Cleary box set.  

First, the good:

• They’re inexpensive. The units we used—with glass cabinets above and concealed shelves below—are $130. We bought them during an IKEA family promotion, so the units were closer to $100 each. (Also available: units with drawers on the bottom instead of shelves, and glass-door cabinets.)

• They have great lines.

• They’re nice-looking. They are not pure white; the off-white finish resembles a wood grain.

• The doors open and close smoothly and silently, much better than the more expensive Hemnes units. This was a huge factor for us.

• They have hidden storage: a huge perk for our family of six. (The concealed shelves hold board games and photo albums.)

IKEA Borgsjo puffin classics close up

The bad:

• They are not high quality, made out of pressboard with a thin veneer.

At 71″, they are shorter than other IKEA bookshelves.

Our living room "library" uses IKEA Borgsjo bookshelves as its foundation

We went with the Borgsjö because they did the job, the price was right, and we’ve never had a furniture arrangement like this.

With the Borgsjö shelves we could try out this library “room” arrangement with a much smaller financial commitment than any other option. They were easy to match with the desk we wanted to use. We could easily sell them at cost on Craigslist or repurpose them elsewhere in the house if we decided to do something different with the space.

Our living room "library" uses IKEA Borgsjo bookshelves as its foundation

top shelf, center: the Puffin in Bloom collection. I love these books. 

The two Borgsjö units are flanking a Vittsjö laptop table ($40). I chalk painted it white to match the bookshelves. The other “walls” of our library area are a Hemnes sofa table, our piano, and a big window.

Our living room "library" uses IKEA Borgsjo bookshelves as its foundation

We also used two Borgsjö glass-cabinet units in the dining room, but that’s another story for another day. (We are happy with them.)

We’re very happy with our little library room. The kids love hanging out in this area: it’s a favorite place to color, read, or just do their homework. The shelves are meeting our needs. On another day when the rest of the room is tidy, I’ll show you pictures of the whole space.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with library nooks and IKEA hacks in comments. 

All photos by Kim Vanslambrook.