Audio Books: Read with Your Ears

To paraphrase Sir Mix-a-Lot, I love audio books and I cannot lie. I love them on my exercise bike, I love them in my car and I love them whenever I can hear them. I thought I had exhausted all ways of listening or, as my grandson says, “reading with my ears.” I was wrong!

My affair with audio books can be traced to Dickens. I had read Great Expectations in high school, but thought the movie was much better. Years later I picked up a CD set of A Tale of Two Cities at my public library. I chose it because it was long and I had a long car trip ahead of me. Listening to that famous opening sentence “It was the best of times…” a chill went down my spine and I was hooked. Instead of fighting traffic, I was transported back to the French Revolution. I could smell the poverty of the Paris slums and was mesmerized by the verbal picture of the ghastly Madame Defarge knitting.

Why was this book so riveting in audio format? If you think about it, reading aloud was a wildly popular family pasttime during the Victorian era. Literacy was on the rise. The price of paper had plummeted and printing was easier. Authors like Dickens knew how to use  these changes to their advantage and voila, the penny weekly was born. This serialized format of the longer book was the perfect length for reading aloud. Understanding this new market, Dickens and others created characters based on how they would sound rather than how they would read. While David Copperfield‘s Uriah Heep spoke with an obsequious h-dropping “umbleness,” Mrs. Peggoty’s Yarmouth dialect was accurate (if hard to understand). More than a few authors took the read aloud format a step further and read their stories to an audience even before they wrote them. Lewis Carroll read Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to the three Liddell sisters on a boating trip in 1862. While writing Treasure Island, Stevenson read a verbal pre-chapter nightly to his family. The Victorian authors were the first to provide this accessible literature to the English working class. In their wildest dreams would they ever have thought that they would still be read aloud  in 150 years…using a  digital device?

We learn about different things in the oddest places. While talking to a group of home schooling mothers after church, I learned about Sarah Mackenzie’s Read Aloud Revival. I love the premise of blending reading aloud with today’s technology while still keeping the family involved. When  I accessed her site, I was amazed at the complexity of the resources. From author visits to book lists to family activities, there is something for everyone! We ended up scheduling a very informative phone call and I came away with another view on audio books. Sarah and staff are committed to providing opportunities for students to hear and have access to beautiful language with the goal of developing a more sophisticated vocabulary. Even though Sarah’s target audience is home schooling mothers, her blog and book lists can benefit all of us. This is a perfect literacy activity for those who don’t feel comfortable reading  aloud to their older children. Yes, the program does use Audible books which can be pricey, but Sarah and crew have posted “best deals” along with websites that have  free audio books.

I have an Amazon Echo  in my kitchen and listen to Audible books while cooking or cleaning. I use my iPhone for audio books from the public library, our district Overdrive collections, Librivox and summer time’s Audiobook Sync. I must admit that the hands-free Alexa or Siri voice command to open or close my audio book is very cool. I can cook, clean, and load the dishwasher while listening to a Maisie Dobbs mystery or learning about the governments in exile during World War II (Last Hope Island). Entranced by time travel in Medieval Wales, I can go 5 miles on my exercise bike in a blink. From the oral tradition to  written word and back to the spoken word, we have come full circle with the help of technology.   Words will always  have the power to enchant us and take us away from our more mundane tasks. The content will be the same; it’s the format that’s different!

This summer Napa Valley USD is again promoting our digital eRead2Win summer reading program and audio books are considered part of the digital platform. Students can choose e-books or audio books from our district collections or use their One Card to access the Napa County Library.

This summer when the sun is too bright or you are on a long car trip alone or with kids and you want a best seller or something to keep everyone occupied, get an audio and read with your ears.



Author: Kate MacMillan

18 years as Coordinator of Library Services for Napa Valley USD and Napa Valley School Library Consortium; 2010-current CDE Recommended Literature Committee member; 8 years as an outside library consultant for Follett Library Resources; 6 years as a Napa County Library Commissioner; Current member of California Dept of Education’s Literature Committee; Napa TV Public Access board member; ALA, AASL, CLA (Californiia Library Association), CSLA (California School Library Association) and CUE (Computer Using Educators). Conference presentations include: United We Stand; School and Public Libraries Working Together (CLA 2016, CSLA 2017), It’s Not Your Mother’s Library 2012 and 2013 (CUE); Enhancing Online Resources through Library Partnerships (CUE 2010); Implementing School Library Consortium (CSLA 2008); Athletes as Readers and Leaders (2008 Association of American Publishers & CSLA Project). Contributor to School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Technology

1 reply

  1. Great article! And if you are looking for FREE resources to help others discover the power of audiobooks as well as lesson plans for fully integrating them into your own learning program in classrooms and school or public libraries, check out the Audio Publishers Association Literacy Toolkit at You’ll also find annotated recommended title lists tied to learning standards and collection development lists that match paperbacks to audios – perfect for your book room.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.