5 Things I Learned From “Reading” 10 Audiobooks

Not Enough Time

Last spring, I was finding that I just didn’t have enough time to read several books that I really wanted to read. Then a friend reminding me about something called “audiobooks.” Because I have a long commute, I had always wanted to try audiobooks, but I had dismissed them because I didn’t want to keep track of CDs, tapes, or synced files.

But since I last looked into audiobooks, two things lowered the barrier of entry for me. First, smartphone apps like audible.com take out all the work of managing physical media or syncing files. Second, my wife got me an aftermarket Bluetooth car kit last year which makes using audio books in the car much safer and more pleasant.

The “Reading” List

As a result, I “read” a number of books that I might have otherwise missed and experimented along the way with which books I would get the most out of. (It seems that the joke about whether or not you really “read” an audiobook never gets old.)

  1. Love Wins by Rob Bell – This was the book that kicked things off for me because I knew I needed to read it quickly to stay in the know. It was a great start because it was only a few hours long, and Bell himself reads it so I could hear exactly want he wanted to communicate. A few laps around my neighborhood, and I was up to date on the controversy of 2011.
  2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas – I missed this book in 2010 when it came out, and I really wanted to catch up. I was worried that I might lose interest since it was over 20 hours long and is theologically rich. But it turned out to be a wonderful listening experience, both because the story of Bonhoeffer’s life is so riveting and powerful and because Metaxas and the reader did such outstanding work.
  3. 1776 by David McCullough – Next, I thought I’d try hitting up an older book that I had always wanted to read, but never took the initiative to actually do something about. Like Bonhoeffer’s biography, this one is a little bit dense when it comes to historical detail, but the strength of the story and the author’s telling of it made it a great audiobook (bonus: it’s read by McCullough himself and his voice is fantastic).
  4. 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad: What Fathers Can Do to Make a Lifelong Difference by Jay Payleitner – At this point, everything I listened to was for my own theological enrichment, so I decided to see if I could get into something that might help me be a better dad. Payleitner’s book is 52 fun stories about things he learned as a dad, and mostly boils down to the simple but important advice: “Show up, and take initiative.” This was the first book where I really should have had some way to jot down a few notes about things I wanted to be sure to take away.
  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig – This time I went out on a limb. I’d always wanted to read Zen, but I knew there was no way I would get to it except in the car. It’s an absolutely fascinating book both in form and content (which is part of Persig’s whole point), and it was interesting to consume it another form. However, I did listen to the abridged version, and I’m not sure I would had made it through the entire book.
  6. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson – I had met Peterson just a few months before, sharing a breakfast with him one morning and taking communion from him the next evening. But before listening to this book, I really didn’t know much about him other than that he wrote The MessageThe Pastor was a perfect introduction to his thought and life which are intertwined. In fact, there’s probably no way to understand his conception of church and community without the real portrait of how he actually lived in it.
  7. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs – I was about to get Jacob’s newer book on reading, but at the last second I decided it would be fun to hear Lewis’ story since I’m starting to read his works to my kids. It was a great choice.
  8. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction – David Sheff’s retelling of his son’s addiction was probably the hardest to stomach and the most eye-opening in story of the bunch. It introduced me to a world of horrors I only tangentially knew existed.
  9. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney – A friend recommended this and again, I found that a good story can make history come alive on audio no matter how boring the material might seem.
  10. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know by Meg Meeker – This is a wonderful book, but it’s a departure from the others in one important aspect. While Meeker does tell some stories, much of the book is data driven which I found harder to consume in audio. Some of the data is rather bleak so I didn’t always find myself looking forward to listening, but still it’s important stuff, and I’m glad I was able to consume the material one way or another.
  11. The Hunger Games by Susan Collins – With this one, I’m right back where I started. That is, I’m back to listening to a book that is culturally relevant like Love Wins. I have to admit, I had a blast listening to this story, and the first person narrative really works as an audiobook. If I were still a youth pastor, I’d have to do something on this and compare it to Esther.

What I Learned

Each of the books has their own strengths, but below are some reflections I’ve had on the medium of audiobooks.

  1. Lowering Barriers of Entry
    When you want to make a change in habits, one of the most important things you can do to ensure it will last is to reduce remove as many barriers as possible. In this case, an iPhone and a car with BlueTooth made audiobooks impossibly easy for me to try.But the same idea also applied to me starting back up with my running. When I setup the coffee maker the night before, put out running clothes (including gloves and a hat when needed), and turn on my alarm, I don’t have any excuses for not going in the morning.
  2. Redeeming the Time
    I drive about 3o minutes each way to and from work. I can use that time to pray, think, eat, or talk on the phone, but there’s not much I can do to make it shorter. So audiobooks offer me a chance to use that time wisely.However, I also know that it can be counterproductive to fight technology with technology. The tension of a commute can be exacerbated by more sounds, so sometimes I still need to just have silence.
  3. Widening Exposure 
    I love reading, but it’s sometimes easy to stay within a certain field (like theological studies) and fail to expand beyond it. By opening up a new medium, audiobooks offered me a chance to read about ideas much different from my own (like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and stay up to date on books in the cultural spotlight (Hunger Games).Going forward, I’d like to use my audiobook time to expose myself to even more ideas and authors that I’d not normally get to read.
  4. Stories vs. Ideas
    Oral communication just seems better suited to telling stories than communicating complex ideas.  When I’m running, it takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with an abstract concept whereas staying in a story seems natural. In fact, a good story seems to help me run faster or longer. I’d like to try listening a longer work of non-fiction, but I think I’ll stick with stories, biographies, and heavily narrative content for now.
  5. When/Where to Stop – When I read a book, I usually try to find a good place to stop like a chapter or section marker. But with audiobooks, the amount of listening is defined by the length of the car ride or run. Many times, I’ve found myself parked outside a building so I could finish listening to a chapter. I also find the experience of audiobooks to have a far more powerful emotional effect on me, such that even when I do finish a chapter, it is often not yet finished with me.

P.S. Hearing the Scriptures

This experience has also make me want to get a good audio version of the Bible. As a point of reference, the Hunger Games is about 11 hours, while audio Bibles are 65-75 hours!My own church makes it a point to read the passage from the sermon aloud as we stand, and that choice has made me grow in appreciation for hearing the Word rather than just readingit.If you have any recommendations on a good version, let me know!

If you’re an audiobook lover (or hater), I’d love to hear what you think!

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

19 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned From “Reading” 10 Audiobooks”

  1. The absolute best reading of the Bible is by Alexander Scourby. Yes it is the KJV, but his voice is so expressive and majestic that you almost don’t notice. No one else comes close.

  2. I am a huge audiobook reader. I own around 400 and have probably checked out another 100 from the library. Not as easy as audible, but there is an overdrive app that allows you to download library mp3 audiobooks directly to your iphone. Also christianaudio.com gives away a MP3 audiobook a month. Lots of good books, some classics, but mostly relatively recent.

    There are authors that I find I prefer listening to. Eugene Peterson and Rob Bell are two that are better listened to than read in my opinion. I also like to listen to NT Wright the first time, then go back and read him. Otherwise if I read him first I usually get bogged down or bored. But one I get through the book once on audio, I know where it is going and I can read through it later.

    I also am trying to re-read at least 12 books a year. And I try to change format, so if I read on audiobook, then I read paper or kindle. If I read paper, I try kindle or audiobook. The biggest difference is going from print based to audiobook, but I do feel like there is a difference between kindle and print, but it is hard to tease out what is really a difference and what is just about reading it a second time.

    I also read a lot of fiction and especially young adult fiction on audiobook while doing data entry work. It is fairly mindless, it is ok if I am not completely paying attention 100% of the time, but it makes the data entry much more enjoyable.

    I also like to use audio as a way to experiment. My library has about 1000 audiobooks that I can check out online via Overdrive. Usually has a pretty long wait for popular books, but when I have a number of books on hold they come up often enough for me to save some money.

    I am reading about 150-175 books a years and 25-30 are audible.com, about 5-10 are christianaudio and about 15-20 are library audio.

  3. Great insights, John. Thanks for sharing your experience. When commuting to/from work (40-60 min ea way) I regularly consume audio books. Christian Audio’s free book of the month has kept my mind enriched on this daily journey for years and audible.com can’t be beat. There have been times while listening through Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, for example, where I’ve had to turn off the audio just to muse over the profundities that gripped me for the moment. At times, I sit in the work parking lot not wanting to get out of the car and start the day’s work because I’m so absorbed.

  4. Good to hear another’s opinion about this. I usually listen to podcasts, but I did finally try an audio book – the biography of Steve Jobs. I didn’t find the app synching very well between my pc application and my android phone. But other than that I like the experience. I definately agree with the storytelling working better in terms of listening as opposed to reading.

  5. Combining audio books and parenting, we like to listen to great books in the car as a family. We can stop the book and talk about something just read, or listen to an entire chapter or two. The last was “A Short History of Nearly Everything” — a terrific book! The author-reader has a British accent, which of course makes any audio book more official.

  6. I have enjoyed audio books for a few years now. I use three sites – http://www.christianaudio.com; http://www.audible.com; http://www.weread4you.com.

    Tying in to your reflections, I have found that because stories are easier to follow than ideas in this format, my selections have moved into genres that I normally wouldn’t take the time to read in print. For instance, I have really enjoyed the fiction books by Wendell Berry, and just yesterday I got the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes! Good times.

  7. Hey John–Yes, stories are great in recorded form. It was through recorded books that I discovered what a master storyteller Dickens was (start with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, but don’t be afraid to move on to Hard Times and Pickwick Papers and on). Few authors can observe and describe people like he could. Also, if you like historical fiction, the “Master and Commander” series (20 volumes) by Patrick O’Brian (get the series as narrated by the amazing Patrick Tull) can be absolutely addictive. History buffs might like Richard J. Evans “Third Reich” trilogy or Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” trilogy. Lauren Hillenbrand’s (author of Sea Biscuit) Unbroken is a fantastic read, also a slice of history.

    Good Christian books have been disappointingly slow to make it into the market, but some good ones are out there. In any event, audiobooks have greatly enriched my life of the mind.

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