A few weeks back, succumbing to a barrage of advertising on my favourite tech podcast TWiT, I signed up to Audible.com, the talking book service run out of the US.

audibleAudible has been plugging away with digital book downloads for ten years now, but seems to really have taken off with the rise of the iPod and the iPhone – and its acquisition last year by online retailing giant Amazon.com. The range of books that have been converted to talking book form (60,000 and counting) is impressive and Audible has secured some talented readers to take on the latest best sellers and a swathe of classics too.

Apparently Audible’s studios are based in New Jersey and the company has secured a string of Broadway actors to head over to read the audio book adaptations as a way of earning extra cash between shows. Most new best sellers pop up on Audible while the print version is still in hardback, so you are literally making a choice between buying the book to put on your shelf, or taking the audio version and storing it on your computer or digital music player.

In terms of the technology, you can’t really fault Audible. The website makes it very easy to browse books, buy them and line them up in the Audible download client. I have my downloads set up to transfer straight to iTunes where I load them onto my iPhone. But Windows Media and a range of other software clients and audio devices are supported.

The pricing isn’t bad for New Zealanders, given the currently strong Kiwi dollar. Currently I’m two months into a three month deal that offers an Audible gold subscription at a discounted rate of US$7.95 (NZ$11.15) per month. That will go up to US$14.95 (NZ$21) per month at the end of next month.

At that price you generally get enough new credit per month to buy a new release audio book. So far, I’ve headed for the back catalogue, picking up Story by Robert McKee and the collected short stories of Richard Matheson, whose most famous long-form work is the novel I Am Legend.

With the discount period drawing to a close I’m mulling over whether to keep up my subscription to Audible. To be honest, I’ll probably ditch it. That totally comes down to taste – and perhaps a bit of neuroscience (where’s Fabiana when I need her).

Talking books are a hit and miss affair. When you get a good reader, a pacy book, a story that flows well and lends itself to being read aloud, there’s nothing better. I find I have less and less time to read these days, so being able to listen to a chapter on the way to and from work has great appeal. The problem is that not all books make for compelling listening. Story, for instance, which is read by McKee himself, has the effect of lulling me to sleep. Matheson’s stories in spoken form are split down the middle – half are really gripping, the other half are yawn-inducing.I find my mind wandering, my attention slipping as a professional American voice jabbers in my ear. The next thing I know a jingle is playing, signaling the end of the chapter, a chapter I missed in its entirety.

The Amazon Kindle

The Amazon Kindle

One of the appealing things about the Audible monthly subscription was the prospect of getting a spoken version of the Wall Street Journal delivered to my iPhone each day. I could catch up on all the latest news on the way to work and start the day well-informed. It hasn’t worked out quite that way. Partly that’s down to the time zone – the updates come through in the evening, but mainly its down to the uninspiring nature of the reading. News articles read aloud don’t really make for compelling listening – once again I find my mind wandering.

It’s hard to explainwhy audiobooks don’t really work for some listeners. Harold Bloom the literary critic has come up with the best explanation I’ve been able to find so far: “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said Bloom.

“You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Oddly, podcasts seem to be a different kettle of fish, I can listen to them happily for hours. So I’ll stick to the podcasts (which are generally free anyway) and take my books in paper form from now on – at least until the Kindle arrives and delivers books over the air straight to my electronic tablet in digital ink. That will be another test of human behavioural adaptation entirely…