Space Operas, Audiobooks, and Linguistic Ponderings…

There’s been an interesting rabbit hole I’ve tumbled down lately. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts, and there really are some amazing ones out there. It’s a great way to pass time while driving to and from work, driving to pick up the kids, or listening while doing work around the house and yard.

For whatever reason, several months back I got a deal on an Audible subscription and started listening to audiobooks. They’d never really piqued my interest before, but as an avid reader I sometimes just don’t want to put books down and do the stuff I need to do. Listening to a good audiobook while performing rote or mindless tasks is a great way to keep “reading” while taking care of business. Audiobooks are probably not for everyone, but I have to say that it’s worth giving them a shot. If you want to try Audible on a trial membership, check out this deal.

What I’ve found is that narrators can not only make or break an audiobook, but there’s a nuanced performance for fiction that fills a niche I didn’t know needed to exist. Despite the age-old comment that the movie is never as good as the book, visual arts do offer a different take on our tried-and-true favorites. The Hunger Games series is a fine example of this. The written trilogy by Suzanne Collins is fantastic, but the movies are also really quite good. There’s a thrill to a good action movie, especially when shared with the family, that’s not found in reading. Of course the flip side is that a good book allows our imaginations to run away with the story and characters and develop a mental image of a universe that exists nowhere except in our heads, and that’s what draws so many of us to reading.

Audiobooks fit neatly in between these two places. When a narrator voices their characters well, dialog can come alive in ways that it doesn’t on the written page. Your imagination still gets a great workout, but some of the mundane pieces are built for you, and the experience can be utterly amazing.

I’ve found that with several books, I’ve purchased the Kindle version and the Audible version, and will flip seamlessly back and forth between them. After I’ve listened to the audio version for a bit, I begin hearing dialog in the voice of the narrator which adds a bit of mental tactility to the reading experience.

So, with that all out of the way, I’ve found two series’ that I feel the need to share. Both are science fiction – a genre I like, but don’t tend to read much of – and both are “space operas”, a sub-genre I’m not sure I’ve ever read.

The first is the Bobiverse series, by Dennis E. Taylor. It’s an irreverent tale of the near future told in an Adams-esque style of humor, grounded with plausibly hard science. It’s not a difficult read by any means, and the characters are delightful in profoundly human ways. This was the series that cemented audiobooks for me. Ray Porter is a narration genius, and portrays the characters wonderfully. (eBooks, audiobooks)

After that series and some other reading and listening, I stumbled upon the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson. In many ways this series feels pedestrian. The books have a definite formula that they follow which lends itself to a feeling of predictability. But the stories themselves are actually really good, and despite being able to predict the arc of each, the content still tends to be surprising. This series also has a fantastic narrator in R. C. Bray. A very worthwhile read for sci-fi fans.

So, that whole bit about where listening to audiobooks fits in between reading a book and watching a movie? I had an interesting listen that felt like it closed a loop there. I’ve always been a fan of linguistics, and after years of teachers in primary and secondary school thumping into my brain the “right” way to write and speak, I was a bit of a prescriptivist, clucking my tongue at grammar mistakes and misused words. A few years back I went back to college and got a degree in Writing and Rhetoric (just for fun). Throughout my time there, my prescriptivism melted away and was replaced with a descriptivist view.

Another audiobook I’m still listening through is the Audible version of The Story of Human Language, one of The Great Courses by Professor John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. Lecture 18: Dialects Spoken Style, Written Style, and Lecture 19: Dialects: The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar both fundamentally bolstered my views on descriptivism. One of the larger points made by McWhorter is that language is naturally and primarily a spoken venture. While we often look to writing as the ultimate form of language perfection, the vast majority of us speak more than we write, and listen more than we read. In fact, written language is still considerably “new” as compared to spoken language, and as such the formalities seen in written language are a newer construct as compared to language itself.

In that vein, it seems that audiobooks speak to our brains in a way that reading from a page simply cannot. Not only does the language get softened, but the processing centers of our brains that interpret language are more geared for vocalization than they are parsing words on a page or screen.

Audiobooks, I believe, may be the future of information and entertainment.

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