I’ve been doing a lot of driving the past few weeks – up to New England and back to Virginia and then up to Baltimore just yesterday. I’ve long ago learned that I can drive almost any distance by myself if I have two things in the car – something to drink and audio books that pull me in.

But what it takes for an audio book to hold me is very different from what I require of a paper (or e-) book. Here are the five things I need to listen to a full audio book:
1. A beginning that is engrossing within fifteen minutes. In a traditional book, I’ll wade through at least a couple of chapters to see it if grabs me (even though I’ll almost always finish any book I start). I have more patience with the start-up of a print book. But in an audio book, if I’m not hooked in the time it takes me to get home from the library, I probably will just put it aside.

2. A reader who does characters’ voices but doesn’t overdo them. I like to be able to tell the difference in who is speaking in an audio book, so I want the reader to craft a specific voice for each character. However, if that reader does voices that border on caricature (too cockney, too southern, too anything), I get turned off immediately. It’s like reading dialect in a novel – too much and it seems to be a joke, not reality.

3. Writing that lends itself to listening. I love the sound of a good sentence in the mouth of a good reader. The words dance or flow or swim . . . and I’m hooked. But I also like a book that I can follow – something that isn’t so convoluted or heavy on word play that I can’t keep up with the story. For instance, I imagine David Foster Wallace’s work would not lend itself easily to audio (but since I haven’t tried his work this way, I can’t say for certain).

4. A system for signalling the end of a cd. I really like when the CD narrator says, “This is the end of Disc 3” or something of that ilk, or when music plays at the end of the disc. I get frustrated when the disc just starts right over, and it takes me a few minutes to realize I really AM hearing something again. I feel like I lose the train of the thought. A little music means I can pop the disc out and put the next one in within seconds, and that means I can get back to the book sooner.

5. A reader who is engaging and energetic. If the reader is too understated or laid back, I get dozy. I would not be a good audiobook reader; my voice is just sort of undertoned and wry, but not in a spunky way. I’m afraid Barbara Kingsolver’s voice is this way, too, but because I love her work so much I listened to her read all of Lacuna and still enjoyed it very much. But mostly, I want a reader who reads like they are enthusiastically lost in the story, too.

Right now, I’m listening to Marisa de los Santos’s novel Belong To Me; it has all these qualities and also some of the best characterization I’ve read in fiction in a long, long time. I highly recommend it as a listen . . . or an on-page read.

Do you listen to audio books? What makes a good audio book for you?