I have very particular taste in audiobooks. While I can put on podcasts almost all of the time (and do!), audiobooks tend to require more attention. I don’t want to miss anything. That’s why I found that nonfiction works better for me, because if I miss a sentence or two, it probably wasn’t a dramatic plot twist that will leave me confused for the rest of the book.
I carefully select audiobooks by narrator, looking for someone entertaining but not over the top. I’ll sample a dozen audiobooks before I find one I can commit to. The strange thing about my meticulous selection process, though, is that the audiobooks that I tend to enjoy listening to the most are the ones I didn’t love as stories.
When I pick up a nonfiction audiobook, I am looking for something like a podcast experience. The best match for this is a light, trivia-style book with lots of “Hey, did you know” facts but not a lot of plot I have to follow. If I get distracted while walking the dogs, I can tune back in a few minutes later and not feel like I’ve missed much.
For fiction, I need a story that’s entertaining without making me feel like I’m hanging on every word. Recently, I picked up a thriller on audiobook for the first time. It’s not a genre I read a lot, but the premise sounded interesting: a woman going through a breakup stays with her friend and her friend’s husband, only to fall in love with both of them. Then, she finds out that they’ve opened up their marriage before, and the previous woman has gone missing.
From the first few chapters of the book, I knew it wasn’t going to be a five-star. There were things that got under my skin, and I went on to feel like it wasn’t nearly as sexy or envelope-pushing as the marketing promised, unless you find bisexuality and polyamory inherently scandalous. But I also knew just as quickly that I was hooked and would be listening to this book every chance I got.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not a coincidence that the audiobooks I’ve enjoyed listening to the most and have finished the quickest are also books I rated about three stars. For a few weeks, I happily went through the entire audio back catalogue of an author, eagerly anticipating each one — and then gave them all three stars, the rating I give to books I liked but didn’t love. The books that are overall “just okay.
A “just okay” audiobook can be a delightful experience, though. I’m not the best at auditory processing, so I tend to avoid listening to my favorite authors or most-anticipated reads on audio. I’ll be stressed out about listening carefully. I’ll save the audiobook only for ideal listening conditions. With a three-star audiobook, though, I can put it on when I’m doing chores that will occasionally drown out the narrator or times when I might be distracted. I go through these audiobooks so much faster and have no stress about making sure I’m listening to them properly.
I realized that I felt some kind of misplaced guilt about seeking out three-star audiobooks, like I should constantly be searching for my new favourite book of all time. But I don’t do that with TV: my favourite shows to watch are often mindless, because they’re relaxing and comforting. There’s space for that in entertainment — in fact, I’d even say it’s a necessity. You need comfort media that doesn’t demand a lot of your brain so that you can rest and recover mentally, just like you can’t exercise all the time.
This experience has made me realize that I should be picking up more “just okay” books in print, too. They may not be perfectly crafted or thought-provoking. I might not remember anything about them the second I finish them. But they’re fun, and there’s something freeing about not having to take them too seriously.
If you also struggle with following along with audio, I invite you to open yourself up to the wonderful world of just okay audiobooks. They’re perfect. And if you often find reading to be intimidating, try something mindless every once in a while. Let yourself skim over the typos and skip past the plot holes. Give your brain a break. Let these books remind you that reading doesn’t have to be serious. Read like a kid again, happily devouring dozens of repetitive paperback books in a series under the covers with a flashlight. And remember: while it can do so many other things for us, reading is also entertainment. Have fun with it!
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