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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Reducing Book Clutter (Part 6): Audio Books

Tell me a story.

There's an ineffable quality to the warm memories brought on by that simple request. For most of us who love books -- who love reading -- the joy of the written word started with the joy of the spoken word. Amid "Once upon a time" and "In a land far, far away," we developed our need to hear "just one more". Stories warm our hearts and give our souls something to savor. It's no wonder that we readers fill our spaces with books until every nook is overflowing.

In the first four installments of this series, we covered ways to reduce the clutter of books by changing the method of acquisition: renting books for adults and children, swapping books via web sites and borrowing from the library. Last week, we turned to changing the actual formats of books to help reduce clutter -- via ebooks. In our final installment, we're looking at listening...to audio books.


Low-clutter -- From an organizational standpoint, audio books reduce clutter because of how little actual space they need. Books on cassette offered little organizational advantage--in fact, one book (even abridged) required multiple cassettes. Books on CD slowly replaced tapes, and though CDs are compact and take up less space than tapes, they don't dramatically reduce the pile-up. However, CDs can be ripped to .mp3 and other formats, so a book that takes up a dozen or more discs (which might get lost, separated from one another or stepped on) can be transferred to a computer, iPod or other audio player.

Portability -- The ability to carry multiple books in digital format, whether on a computer or gadget, means never having to "weigh" your book options, literally or figuratively, whether you're traveling around the globe or shlepping to the moon on your treadmill.

Affordability of Devices -- While audio books, like ebooks, generally carry a cost, there is a decided advantage in the gadgets one may use to "read" audio. While the Kindle and Nook are priced in the hundreds of dollars, an .mp3 player can be had for as little as $10 (though, of course, most of us are tempted towards the pricier iPod line).

Paired Tasking -- As a professional organizer, I eschew multitasking. You can't effectively do two things at once if intellectual involvement is required for both. However, audio books let you do one thing that no other format allows -- you can read when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied. Audio books, particularly in digital format, let you commute (in your own vehicle or via public transportation), work out, travel, do housework or almost anything else that requires physical, but not mental, focus. Your eyes can be open or closed, your hands full or empty...and you never have to leave the story.

Interoperability of Formats -- Burning a CD to .mp3 or changing from one format type to another is relatively simple and problem-free.

Immediacy -- Although there aren't currently any super-speedy sci-fi methods of acquisition along the lines of Amazon Kindle's Whispernet, you can purchase an audio book (as a digital file) and begin listening immediately. No trip to the library or bookstore is necessary.

Environmental-Friendliness -- The pressing and packaging of CD versions aside, audio book files require a relatively small carbon footprint.


The Voice -- When you read, your imagination substitutes the voice type and vocal mannerisms, the verbal tics and aural characteristics of the characters in fiction. Even before you saw the big-screen versions of favorite books, you just "knew" how Mr. Darcy or Albus Dumbledore should sound. Most fiction audio books have one voice (sometimes the author, sometimes a famous actor, sometimes an unknown reader) relaying the story, and while audio book producers generally do an excellent job of ensuring that you know whether you're hearing a character (and which one) or the narrator, the creative experience of reading is altered.

Of course, in another way, it's very much the same experience as having a book read to you as a child, and that can make the experience enjoyable in an altogether different way.

The Feel -- As referenced last week with ebooks, the tactile sensation of reading a traditional book is missing from the audio book experience.

Higher Costs of Books -- Fewer people buy audio books than tangible books, decreasing the economies of scale of production. And, of course, it costs more to produce an audio book (with talent, directors and producers) than a traditional book. However, as digital formats don't require storage or additional print run costs, we may anticipate increased price parity in the future.

No Reference Material -- With fiction, the story is all. However, with nonfiction audio books, footnotes, end notes, reading lists, glossaries and other extras are generally lost.

No Searchability or Bookmarking -- Audio books don't just lack tables of contents and index material. With a traditional book, or even an ebook, you can manually or digitally search for text or phrasing or bookmark pages or sections. With an audio book, you can return to where you stopped, but you can't quickly find specific passages or sections unless you a) have a counter and b) previously noted the counter position.

Impermanence -- Although audio booksellers can't steal back books sold after the final sale (as in our Orwell tale last week), two issues remain:

1) Technology Failures -- A computer or gadget crash can damage your ebook library, and any titles you haven't backed up. (So back up frequently!)

2) Changing technologies -- Unlike the myriad ebook formats, there are relatively few popular audio book formats: .mp3, .wma, .ogg and .aac. Although CDs and digital files are hardier than tape, the lack of backward compatibility means that unlike a family Bible or favorite novel, it's doubtful that anyone will pass down a library of .mp3s to their great grandchildren.


There are numerous sources for purchasing audio books, of which Audible (which offers a free 14-day trial) seems to be the most highly esteemed. However, as Paper Doll's mission is as much to help you organize your little green pieces of paper as it is to declutter your bookshelves, I'd like to review the least expensive options for acquisition:

Your Public Library -- Many public libraries allow cardholders to "borrow" audio books. Peruse your library's web site for references to NetLibrary or Overdrive, or search Overdrive to see whether your library is a member, providing DRM-free audio books. Depending on your library, there may be a limit on the number of audio books you can borrow concurrently. Downloads are "returned" automatically after a limited borrowing time.

Project Guttenberg - The Audio Books Project -- The same Project Gutenberg we discussed last week, which offers thousands of public domain ebooks, has a wide variety of public domain audio books read by volunteers as well as texts read by computer. In English, choose from Aesop to Emile Zola; there are more than a dozen non-English languages with large collections, and a few dozen other languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, represented as well.

Learn Out Loud maintains a library of over 25,000 audio book titles, of which 2000+ are free. While most free audio book sites lean towards fiction offerings, Learn Out Loud concentrates on non-fiction -- you'll find a treasure trove of books on arts and entertainment, business, history, philosophy, politics, religion, science, self-development and more, downloadable for free in the .mp3 format. Place free titles in your shopping cart as if you are purchasing a book, place your order, then follow the steps to "My Downloads" to get your audio book.

Audio Books for Free isn't the prettiest site on the web, but all of their titles are produced with professional actors/readers, directors and producers. Registration is required but free, and then you can search by genre and title, and even filter by language, play time, author, reader, and, if you're a sensitive soul, filter out "strong language", murders and adult themes. For a one-time $100 fee, you can gain access to higher quality audio formats.

Books Should Be Free offers hundreds of free public domain audio books suitable for the iPod or any .mp3 player. Classic titles are available in languages ranging from Ancient Greek to Urdu and in genres as varied as historical fiction, romance and sci-fi to humor, poetry, memoirs and religion. For each book, there's a synopsis, a link to the Wikipedia entry, an audio preview and a link to the Project Gutenberg text version. (In the same vein as Charlotte Bronte's "Reader, I married him"... Readers, I'm listening to Jane Eyre as I blog.)

Podiobooks delivers serialized chapters or sections of audio books by RSS, as if they were podcasts, to your iTunes or other podcatcher or RSS reader that handles embedded media. Alternatively, listeners can listen "live" or download episodes of books directly from the site, without any subscription. Unlike most free audio book sites, these titles are not out of the public domain, but are actually newer works. Some authors choose to make their books available for free to increase exposure, while others hope free audio versions will incline readers towards buying tangible copies, as well.

LibriVox is a non-commercial, non-profit library of free public domain audio books, but with a twist -- books, even individual chapters, are read and recorded by users rather than professional actors or readers. You can subscribe to LibriVox's thrice-weekly podcast to listen to the current book. Or, browse the entire catalog or search by author, title or genre to find what you want, then either download a zip file of an entire book or subscribe to it in iTunes. Listen through your computer, copy to your gadget of choice, or burn to CD. If the site's goals intrigue you, consider volunteering to record yourself reading a beloved book or even a chapter.

Thought Audio is a small but growing free library of classic literature and philosophy texts in .mp3 format (available for live listening or free download). If you'd rather bypass the downloading of each segment separately (ideal for sequential listening or those with slow download speeds), a $10/year Zip Pass lets you download an entire (zipped file) book with one click.

Americana Phonic offers audio narration of American historical works and current government works in the .aac format. Make history come alive--for free. Haven't you always want to do your yoga to a soundtrack of The Federalist Papers? (No? It's just me? Sigh.)

Want more? Gizmo's Freeware has a list of 64 sites for acquiring free audio books. Search by genre or by site name.


Cracker Barrel -- If you're on the road a great deal and haven't yet sprung for an .mp3 player, consider this novel approach for satisfying your literary cravings from the people who satisfy your biscuit and gravy cravings. Purchase a Book-on-Audio CD at any of their 400 locations in thirty-eight states. Titles tend to be new or recent releases. Listen, then return at ANY Cracker Barrel for a full refund (less a $3.49/week rental). Lather, rinse, repeat. For long-haul drivers, serious commuters and others who spend too much time in the car, this can be a fun, low-cost option that fosters a "one in, one out" approach for keeping the clutter of audio book CDs at bay.

I hope you've enjoyed this ramble through the various approaches to reading to your heart's content while minimizing the tangible clutter of reading material. No matter where you acquire your books or in what format you devour them, Paper Doll wishes you happy reading!

posted on: 10/5/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Jeri Dansky on 10/11/2010 2:48:51 AM:

I like listening to some audio books AFTER I've read the book, if the reader's voice is good. It can add an extra dimension to my enjoyment of a really good book. However, my approach doesn't do anything toward reducing book clutter.

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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