Heard any Good Books Lately?

Heard Any Good Books.mp3 (5min, 1MB)
When pneumonia wiped me out for about two months in the fall of 2007, for several weeks I could do little more than lie on the futon and worry about the work I was missing.  During the first week or so, when I still imagined it was just the flu and figured I’d be back on my feet soon, I worried about falling behind in my reading.

I was slated to teach Jane Eyre, which I hadn’t read since I was an
undergraduate, and I could barely hold a book. Fortunately, I could just lie there and listen to a patient (if bland) computer voice reading whatever I asked it to read.

During one of my lucid phases, I downloaded the Project Gutenberg edition of Jane Eyre, and converted it into an MP3 with the text-to-speech program TextAloud. (The default voices that come with the program are tolerable, but I sprang for some professional voices that are worth the extra money — much better than blustering bots who blurt “Stop the humanoids! Stop the intruders! The humanoids must not escape!”) The whole thing cost about $55.

I pushed the whole Jane Eyre text through the program, resulting in a single file that probably took 11 hours to play.  It was rather tedious having to rewind to the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep and/or the batteries died.

Since then, I’ve learned a few things about listening to computer-generated audiobooks.

Now I break the files up into chapters, and convert them into separate
audio files. TextAloud has a file-splitting utility and a way to deal
with multiple texts at once; the extra 10 minutes of fussing with the
file divisions is well worth the effort.  The shortest chapters take
only a few minutes to hear, while one chapter in The Grapes of Wrath clocked in at almost two hours.

I set my MP3 player to play one track at a time, so if I’m listening in bed and want another chapter, I just click the button. If I fall asleep, I know exactly where I left off. There are, of course, times when I’d prefer to fall asleep with my own thoughts, but if I get insomnia, now I feel I can put that time to good use.

I own copies of all the books that are still protected by copyright, and I don’t plan to publish the MP3s of any of the copyrighted books.

It takes me about 5-10 minutes to prepare a plain vanilla text so that my text-to-speech program can produce the MP3s, and it takes a half hour or so for my new laptop to churn out the MP3s. Often at night I will set up a new text, and it’s ready for me to load into my MP3 player the next morning.

The computer voice isn’t great, and of course it’s fairly monotonous, but I’m so used to that voice now that I don’t actually hear it anymore — I listen right through it, you might say. I don’t really want to listen to a talented voice actor putting a creative interpretation on the words.  I actually prefer a mechanical monotone, since it’s far easier for me to overlay my own interpretation of the words.

I have also used the text-to-speech software to listen to drafts of my own articles and conference presentations, and administrative reports. (There’s nothing like pulling weeds while listening to complaints about campus parking.)

I have gone for walks while listening to academic articles and dissertations, student independent study projects or paper drafts (not when I’m evaluating it for a grade, only when I’m giving feedback on a draft in progress), and the source code for Colossal Cave Adventure.

Here’s a list of the books that I’ve listened to in the past year or so, while commuting or in the grocery store or working on my lawn or folding the laundry or sitting in a waiting room. Most I have read before, and I chose to listen to them in order to de-familiarize myself with them, and try to capture a little of what my students might have felt, reading them for the first time:

  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
  • Benito Cereno (Herman Mellville)
  • Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Cory Doctorow)

Also, for my own pleasure and edification, I listened to these:

  • 1984 (George Orwell)
  • A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
  • Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
  • Moby Dick (Herman Mellville)
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne)
  • My Tiny Life (Juiian Dibbell)
  • Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis)
  • All the full-length Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about Mars.

I really enjoyed the Mars books, and had long wanted to read them after I heard that they had inspired both astronomer Carl Sagan and author Ray Bradbury.  The first trilogy was excellent, and the later books introduced variations on the formula that were nearly as entertaining.  The number of times the hero is captured and sent to the pits beneath the city, where he happens to be chained up next to someone who can provide the very information he needs to help him advance his quest, makes for some predictable but still enjoyable adventures.

  • Dracula (Bram Stoker) (about halfway through)


One thought on “Heard any Good Books Lately?

  1. The mechanical sounding voices of most text-to-speech services also annoye me. If you’re looking for a variety of voices, I suggest VoiceForge powered by Cepstral. VoiceForge offers up to 60 different voices, making it easy to choose a voice appropriate to the book OR your present mood.

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