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Heard Any Good Books Lately?

I may belong to the last generation for which radio was once not just a source of music, news and sports, but also a primary source of verbal entertainment. Born in 1959, I grew up as television did, and many of my childhood references come from the screen. But I also listened to the radio in my youth, and learned then to appreciate how the spoken word can have a spellbinding, even mesmerizing power.

In my early teenage years I listened almost religiously to the great comic storyteller Jean Shepherd, as he wove his tales of his youth in Indiana. I recall turning on WOR radio in New York, at 10:15 PM, and listening to him alternate stories with wacky songs. I later discovered the work of Garrison Keillor, whose poignant stories of small-town characters are literary creations brought to life on his Prairie Home Companion radio show.


I am also an avid reader, of both fiction and non-fiction, and I read several books a week. I am fortunate to be able to read quickly enough to feed my eclectic range of interests. But in spite of my appreciation for the spoken word and my love of reading, I have never succumbed to the idea of listening to books on tape. Although radio shows were written for or adapted to that medium, audio books are merely books read and recorded. They were somehow different, and not as compelling for me as either radio shows or traditional books. Nonetheless, I kept hearing about how people with long commutes enjoyed them, and how others found them an excellent way to pass the time (and stay alert) on tedious car trips.

So when Apple added to iTunes the capability of listening to audio books sold by, I thought it would be interesting to check into how audio books might fit into my life. Here was a user-friendly way to approach spoken-word texts, built into a program that I use often. ( works only with iTunes 3 or later, running in Mac OS X.)


Hear This! is, quite simply, an online bookstore for downloadable audio books and other recorded works, including radio shows, magazines, and newspapers, and it works like any other ecommerce site. You browse their pages or search their catalog, add items to your shopping cart, and pay with a credit card. After making a purchase, puts your books into a Library, which lists all the books you have bought. You can download your audio books immediately, in a choice of different formats, and you can also defer the download of all or part of these books if your bandwidth is insufficient to do so right away. Unlike the iTunes Music Store, interestingly enough, always lets you go back and download your purchases again if ever you lose the files or erase them accidentally.


After signing up, I first bought a copy of John Grisham’s latest novel, The King of Torts, which clocks in at just under 12 hours long. The audio file comes in two parts, and the various formats I could play offered file sizes of 22 MB, 42 MB or 84 MB. These different formats correspond to different types of audio compression.’s help pages explain these formats as offering similar quality to AM radio, FM radio and MP3. Having a broadband DSL connection, I chose the maximum quality, but modem users would likely choose the lowest quality, otherwise the download would take hours. Although the sound is less rich, this is only spoken word, and even AM radio quality is acceptable for many listeners. However, some older books were recorded at such poor quality that the samples sound no better than a voice over a telephone.

After you download the audio files, just double-click them and iTunes opens and imports them into your music library. The first time you do this a dialog asks you to enter your username and password, after which iTunes connects to the Web site to activate your account (this account checking prevents copying of files). You can then start listening to your audio books using iTunes, transfer them to your iPod, or burn them to audio CDs (in standard audio format only; you cannot burn MP3 CDs of them, although you could of course just convert an audio CD back into MP3 format, just as with tracks from the iTunes Music Store).

The listening process is simple, and iTunes is a fine tool for playback. When you stop listening to an audio book file, and quit iTunes, it remembers where you are so you don’t need to browse through the file to find where you left off. However, at least in the books I downloaded, there is no way to find specific locations in a file, such as the beginnings of chapters. Apparently, some books do have chapter markers, which are supported by both iTunes and the iPod. Although this may not be a problem with novels, it can be annoying with non-fiction books, where you may want to skip some chapters. I was also disappointed by the lack of any table of contents or track listing. I wanted to know the names of chapters, along with their length. Each time I started listening to a chapter I wondered how much time it would take. With the Grisham novel this was a moot point, since all the chapters are relatively brief (15 to 20 minutes). But with other books it would be useful to know when you start listening to a chapter whether you’ll have time to finish it.

Those who want to listen to audio books from away from their Macs (listening in the car is particularly common, as is listening on the subway or on transcontinental flights) can use a variety of MP3 players that are compatible with’s file format, which use some sort of copy-prevention technology, much like tracks from the iTunes Music Store. Most Mac users will probably use an iPod, of course, and the iPod software works well with content to remember your position, just as when you listen with iTunes. Ironically, the oldest technology used for audio books – standard cassette tapes – works swimmingly for remembering your position each time you stop them. There have been reports of the iPod losing track of where you are in an book, but short of the iPod’s battery being drained or a hard reset, Apple claims the iPod should always remember your position even if you switch tracks. Location within an track is even maintained when you sync to iTunes. In the worst case, you could just “scrub” to the right position in the track using the scroll wheel. Note that if you acquire audio books in straight MP3 format from other sources, iTunes and the iPod will not be able to save your location.


Grating on the Ears — There are probably two types of people in the world: those who like audio books and those who don’t. I’m not sure which group I belong to. Listening to the first chapters of The King of Torts, I was quickly enthralled by the story, even though I felt it was read a bit too slowly. But since I read fast, this is a necessary adjustment. (And one way or another, for a fast reader, listening to a book will likely take many hours more than reading it.) As the novel went on, though, I lost interest. The narrator was certainly capable, but his stereotyped use of different accents to differentiate between blacks and whites, and between the moneyed southern white characters and the protagonist of the story, was grating at first and wore thin after a few minutes. Even worse was his use of a slight falsetto when reading female dialogue.

You can listen to RealAudio samples of each book before choosing, so the experienced listener will certainly want to opt for the types of voices they appreciate. Some of the voices are so stodgy and stilted that I couldn’t imagine listening to them for 10 hours or more. It would be something like that high school geography teacher who ranked high in soporifics and low in interest. But it all depends on how you listen to these books, and what your expectations are. I can understand that people who listen to them on commutes may not have the same criteria as I do. Sitting on my terrace in the French Alps, an excellent pair of headphones on my ears, my iBook on the table beside me, I probably expect more than if I were riding the F train going to work in Manhattan.

I’ll admit it: while I do read mysteries, I’m more of a literary elitist, and the second book I chose was Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to be Alone. This was a much more successful listen, with the first essay, one about his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, read by the author. The narrator of the rest of this book was much more in touch with the tone of the words than the Grisham reader, but it could be that non-fiction works better than fiction for me.

The Sound of Money — These books are no bargains, compared to the price of the real print books, with prices generally comparable to hardcover editions. Most people won’t buy individual items, though, since offers subscriptions where each month you can download one ($15) or two ($20) books, along with one audio magazine, newspaper, or radio program, at a fixed price. That may seem a bit high, but it’s actually pretty good compared to the price of audio books on cassettes or CDs, especially when you consider that there is no shipping to be paid, and you can feed your habit at any time of the day or night. Listeners with iPods will find’s service especially useful, since they don’t have to convert tapes or discs they purchase to MP3 files to listen to them. Also remember that because it takes a lot longer for many people to listen to an audio book than it does to read a print book (often 10 hours or more), two books per month may be all you can find time for.

In the end, your appreciation of these audio books depends on the way you approach books and what you expect from the narrators. For people who are already listeners of audio books, is an excellent service and integrates seamlessly with iTunes and an iPod. If you’ve never tried audio books but have blocks of commuting time that they might fill well, it may be worth giving a try if you already have an iPod; if not, try borrowing some books on tape from your local public library before you spend the money on an iPod and an account. As for me, if I had a regular commute and an iPod, I would probably have stuck with, but as it was, I couldn’t get over my irritation with some of the narrators to make the cost and the time spent listening worthwhile.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. He is currently working on a book entitled Unix for Mac OS X: Learning the Command Line, to be published by Addison-Wesley in late 2003.]

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