I’ve been writing a lot about music here, including how important it can be to people, and trawling through my music collection. And I’ve written about audio description as well. But audio is also used for books too. They don’t just have to be printed on paper or displayed on a screen – a huge number of them have audio versions as well. They are particularly useful for visually impaired people of course, but sighted people can (and do) listen to them as well. I don’t personally use them very much – music, TV, films and the internet take up enough of my time where entertainment is concerned – but my mother listens to them a lot, and I do listen to one or two occasionally.
Visually impaired people can also get books in very large print or braille of course, and text on e-book devices can often be enlarged to help you. So there will be people who prefer those methods of reading, and that’s fine. But reading in those ways can sometimes be slow going and hard work, and printed books can be tiring on the eyes, compared to just listening to someone else read it for you. And some large print and braille books can be huge bookshelf-fillers. If there’s any disadvantage of listening to audio books, on the other hand, it’s that you can sit or lay back and get so comfortable listening to them that you just fall asleep, even if the book’s interesting! And there are plenty of books that still don’t have audio versions. But the amount of audio books that are out there is massive.
Although it is theoretically possible to read some electronic books using software that speaks the text to you, that’s not what I mean here. Speech software is great for things like letters, reports, web pages, etc, but it’s not best suited to lengthy books, especially stories, autobiographies, etc. It’s far better to hear an actual person reading it, because it sounds far more natural and personal. A human being can put emotion and feeling into it, add correct emphasis and pronounciation into what they’re saying, and do different voices to distinguish different characters. Great narrators can really bring books to life and help to create the necessary imagery in your mind. Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books is the classic example in my mind, because he does it so well.
Recording a book is very time-consuming and isn’t always easy, and a huge mark of respect has to go to all the narrators and editors, who spend days recording each book for us all to enjoy. To give you an idea of what it’s like recording an audio book, there are playlists by Open Book Audio and Audiobook Creation Exchange on Youtube (among others I expect), which give interesting insights into the process.
Once upon a time, the main way to get audiobooks was on CD and cassette tapes. And there are still a few companies that sell books on CDs, such as ISIS Publishing. They have an unfortunate acronym given events in the news these days, but they were using the ISIS name long before other less-desirable groups picked it up. My parents used to buy quite a lot of books from ISIS Publishing and other companies in the past.
But these days the easiest and quickest way to get audiobooks is by downloading them. And the biggest seller of audiobooks online is probably Audible, now owned by Amazon. They allow you to buy titles from their huge library, and download them directly to your computer and other devices. If you listen to books a lot, it’s well worth checking out their membership options, which give you free books and discounts for a subscription fee.
But as well as buying books online, you can also borrow them, thanks to services like Calibre and the RNIB Talking Book Library. Both libraries are free, but it’s the RNIB’s library I want to focus on here, as it’s the only one of the two I have experience of.
Access to the RNIB’s free library allows you to borrow up to 6 books at a time, if you are blind and partially sighted, or have other conditions that make it difficult to read printed books (e.g. dyslexia). In the past it used to cost £50 a year – which, for us, was paid by our local social services authority – but RNIB generously scrapped the charge on their 80th anniversary of Talking Books. So there’s no excuse not to give it a go now it’s free.
The RNIB still allow you to borrow books on Compact Discs and USB sticks if you prefer it that way. But over the last couple of years they’ve made it possible to download their books directly to your computer, using a service called RNIB Overdrive. And this is what we use in my household. We download books on to my computer, and from there to my mother’s portable Victor Reader Stream player. I also have the Overdrive app on my iPhone, through which I can download and listen to books as well.
RNIB Overdrive is a brilliant service, and the number of titles and categories available is mind-blowing, covering all areas of fiction and non-fiction and even well-known magazines. It’s well worth browsing through the categories, and typing names of authors and books you like in the search box, to see what comes up. You can browse the library without having an account, by visiting the RNIB Overdrive website, which will give you a good taste of what’s available. There are gaps, sure, but the RNIB are adding new books all the time, so it’s constantly expanding.
I’ll review the service and illustrate how we use it in a separate post. But if you’re not familiar with Ovedrive, I highlty recommend watching Fashioneyesta’s Overdrive Video, as it’s very informative. Just remember that the £50 charge and discount code are no longer relevant. The RNIB’s channel also has videos about it of course, including one about using Overdrive with Voiceover on your iPhone.
Although I don’t listen to many books personally, I know how enjoyable and important they are, including for my mother and some of my friends. Reading is a great activity, offering lots of enjoyment and escapism, and giving vital opportunities for learning and discovery. And the fact that audiobooks are available helps to ensure that tens of thousands of titles are available to as many people as possible. It’s wonderful that you can get them in a variety of formats, that so many narrators put the time aside to record them, that the publishers and authors allow them to be recorded in the first place, and that the internet has made distribution so quick and easy. It’s another example of how technology and book-reading entertains and assists millions of people, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Books are for everyone, so the more accessible they are, the better.