Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Putting Voices in Your Head

How many hours do you spend on your morning commute?  Okay, maybe you get that trip done in less than an hour - but how many hours in a week?  If you're spending an hour a day, round-trip, that's about 250 hours per year, keeping it between the ditches, hanging on the straps on the subway, waiting for the world rushing past you to get where it's going, so you can get off the ride and begin the rest of your day.

Now, there's some debate as to how legal it is to drive with earphones on.  As far as I can tell after minutes of research, there aren't many laws on the books that tell you that it's absolutely disallowed.  I drive with headphones, sometimes alongside police cruisers, and garner no attention whatsoever.  Of course, my headphones are shot on one side, so really I've got one ear open anyway.  But considering all the myriad earbud headphone options, it would be next to impossible to detect headphone use from outside the car.  If it became a law, it would be nigh-on unenforceable.  But all of this isn't really to my point.

Even if you can't get behind headphone use in the car - and I'm not advocating it, so don't climb all over me on that - it's becoming more and more common to be able to play your audiobook via myriad media devices.  There are CD players in cars, new stereos are available that have auxiliary ports built in, so you'd hook up your player to the stereo as if the stereo were a pair of headphones, there are stereos with USB ports built in, and of course there are devices that will allow your MP3 player to connect wirelessly to a stereo by transmitting a weak FM signal, which the stereo then plays.

I won't advocate iPods, either.  For a company that prides itself on being the nonconformist's choice, Apple certainly does have a large contingent of fanboys that hangs on its every product.

So let's just see a quick few options for finding audiobooks.  Where do you go to find them?

McKay's Used Books here in east Tennessee has a large selection, though what's on hand is variable and by no means reflective of what's currently in production.  We got all the Harry Potter titles, but there was a lag of several months between title releases and their turning up at McKay's.  It helps to get there early in the day.

Cracker Barrel restaurants does a brisk business in audiobooks, but the selection is going to be fairly narrow and pretty tame.  They're intended for folks on long trips.  They also will refund the purchase, minus a per-week charge.

The usual suspects, the big-box book dealers Barnes and Noble and Borders have their own audiobook sections, neither of which measures up to McKay's but these tend to reflect the bigger sellers currently enjoying exposure on the shelves.  Borders' website has a large section providing immediate digital download, if you absolutely have to have your titles now now now.  If that's the case, get on the keyboard and start clattering, Borders has been showing signs of financial distress lately.

There are other outlets besides the regular players.  Just do a quick search for "audio book" and you'll find all manner of options.  One in particular I'm fond of - and Sweetie absolutely loves - and that has seen mention here before is LibriVox.  LibriVox produces only titles that are in the public domain, so you will have to wait fifty years or more for the latest Harry Turtledove alternative history thriller, but on the other hand certain works are already available for free.  That's right, free.  Nada.  Zip, gratis, complimentary.  Sweetie has downloaded the complete works of Jane Austen and enjoyed it immensely, but she concedes that the volunteer nature of the talent pool that generates the readings can leave the quality a bit dodgy at times.  You may have to choose from among several versions before finding a reader who, if not satisfies, then at least doesn't grate on your ears.

Project Gutenberg is another source providing public domain works, and uniquely also has some works that are read not by volunteers but by a computer.  I listened to one; hold out for humans.  Then again, listening to Robinson Crusoe I was several times set to wondering whether my reader was entirely organic.  There were times when his delivery was so stilted I was certain that if he wasn't a computer, then he had to be a Borg.

Up until a couple of years ago I got all my listening done with an Aiwa tape player, a stout little device with digital FM tuning and an apparent appetite for punishment.  In my previous job, I had dropped it a grand total of ten times from my hip onto concrete.  Each time it bounced back and kept going.  But cassette tapes have only so much life left in them; as time goes by the tape stretches, the magnetic signal on the tape itself degrades, and the sound on the tape becomes so poor you just can't stand to listen to it anymore.  CDs hold their signal better; the CD is by design a more stable medium.  Its optical recording isn't subject to degradation over time.  Avoid scratching its face and a CD is playable for decades, while a cassette tape will slowly become unplayable even if you never take it off the shelf.

Now I do all my listening on a Sansa Fuze with 8Gb of memory.  It's hard to sing this thing's praises more highly. It holds my entire collection of Harry Potter, all of the Narnia titles, several music albums and a couple more books besides.  Importing stuff from LibriVox or Gutenberg is a snap.   If I get tired of what I keep aboard - Narnia goes with me at all times - it plays radio too.  On top of all of that, I can QUADRUPLE its capacity with the addition of a microSDHC memory card - sufficient to play nonstop for over a month with no repeats.  Considering I don't listen more than maybe four hours in a day, that would take six months to get through, and I suspect it would encompass every single audiobook title I own, and then some.

Sansa Fuze.  I'll say it again, Sansa Fuze.  I tried out several different players and kept coming back to this one.  It's pleasantly compact, comfortably weighty for its size, and flexible in what it can do.  If it ever breaks, I'm getting another one just like it.

As if all this weren't enough, it's not an iPod.  That's a great big layer of icing on top of a really great cake.

Sweetie got the first Fuze in the house.  She liked it so much, she invited me to try it out for a day.  I wasn't willing to give it up at the end of the day, and she gave me one for Father's Day.  Son #1 tried it out and liked it, so he got one for his birthday.  So far, Son #2 hasn't shown any interest in the things at all.

Maybe I'll get him a record player.

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