Frugal Reading: Free Audiobooks!

A long while back, I kicked off my Frugal Reading Series with some tips on becoming a frugal reader. And then I moved, got pregnant (and very sick), had a baby, and moved again. Now that I’m back, I’m excited to continue this series combining two of my favorite things – reading and frugality!

For so long I had serious Audible envy. No matter what new member promotions, Black Friday deals, or other money-saving contrivances I came upon, the simple fact remained that Audible costs money. That’s not to say the cost isn’t justified for the product; it just isn’t practical for my budget. I’d sometimes troll the library for books on CD and listen in the car, but audiobooks were largely inaccessible to me.

Then I discovered LibriVox and it is possibly the best thing to potentially ever happen to anyone, anywhere in the history of the universe.

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If you know me, you’ve probably heard a manic, gushing recommendation for LibriVox, not unlike Leslie Knope gushing about Lil’ Sebastian. Hey, it earns the praise. LibriVox is an awesome organization dedicated to “mak[ing] all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format…” Volunteer readers from all over the world contribute to this massive library of free audiobooks. FREE AUDIOBOOKS.

I was quite skeptical at first. I mean, free audiobooks? Volunteer readers? Sounds a bit sketchy, no matter how noble the mission. I expected to find a small selection of mediocre to somewhat okay-ish audiobooks.

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I soon repented of my skepticism. There are so many fantastic readers volunteering for LibriVox, including many professionals who generously bring their talents to this free platform (I can vouch for Elizabeth Klett and Mark F. Smith!). But many of the amateur readers are amazing as well; Margaret Espaillat and Becky Miller got me through George Eliot’s monstrous works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda each about 32 hours of wonderful audio I could not stop listening to. There are even dramatic readings, with a full cast bringing a book to life like a radio drama. My favorite of these was the hilarious Lady Susan by Jane Austen (a laugh-out-loud gem, and much more enjoyable than the recent movie based on it, Love and Friendship.).

The selection is also incredible. There are so many excellent audiobooks on LibriVox that I’ve stopped thinking about Audible altogether. The catch is, the books on LibriVox are all in the public domain, so it does not include works published after 1924 (but you can purchase more recent works through the app). However, there are so many freaking amazing books written before 1924, and audio is a great format if you’ve struggled to get into classics.

Logistics first: There is a free app for Android and iOS – they have some ads, but honestly I don’t remember ever noticing them much. I opted for the $1.99 version, just because I wanted to support an awesome organization. You can also listen and download books on their website, LibriVox.org.

How to find great books on LibriVox

All gushing aside, there are a lot of not very good books, and I struggled to find the good ones when I was new to LibriVox. Even now, I often decide on a book only to find there isn’t a good recording. There is no vetting for volunteers, so anyone can read – no matter how monotonous their voice or how much background noise their microphones pick up. And many books have different readers for different chapters, which is just not my cup of tea. Here is how I consistently find great books on LibriVox. (You can skip to the end for my book recommendations!)

1. Read Reviews

LibriVox is kind of like AirBNB: there is no shortage of excellent options, but if you ignore the the reviews, you’re going to have a bad time.

I generally only consider recordings with an average rating of at least four stars. Reviewers usually comment on the narrator, especially if they are particularly excellent or particularly terrible. I recently listened to Oliver Twist when I’d had no intention of doing so, because the reviews were crazy about the reader, Tadhg. It did not disappoint.

2. Compare Versions

Don’t default to version one. Many of the most popular classics have two, three, or more versions by different readers. The reviews will tell a lot, but if there is no stand-out I like to sample a minute or so of each to pick my favorite reader. Usually you can tell in the first ten seconds if you’ll get along with a reader or not, and it’s worth the extra effort when you’re going to be spending 10-20 hours with them.

3. Be Wary of “LibriVox Volunteers” (but not too wary)

“LibriVox Volunteers” listed as the reader means that there are multiple readers for that books. I avoid these (for the most part). Multiple readers make it much harder for me to stay interested. It is such a wonderful experience to travel through a whole book with one amazing reader.

The exception to this rule is full-cast recordings. These are generally indicated as “(dramatic reading)” in the title – but not always, so read the book description and reviews for clues. I nearly passed up fabulous book The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but saw a review clarifying that it is a full-cast recording. The book has multiple first-person narrators, each with their own reader – so it didn’t quite qualify as a dramatic reading, but also didn’t just randomly switch between readers. Thank you again, reviews! (The chapter summaries can also give you a hint, as they will list the reader for each chapter.)

4. Follow the Reader

If you love a reader, look them up to see what else they’ve recorded. Most have multiple books available, and some have recorded a veritable library of their own. I fell in love with Elizabeth Klett’s reading of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. She has recorded tons of excellent women’s literature like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and more Edith Wharton. I’d be occupied for years just with the excellent novels she’s recorded.

5. Be Ready to Bail

Sometimes you just won’t connect with a reading for whatever reason. I always go into chapter one ready to cut and run if I don’t like it. This may sound fickle, but most of my choices are 15-30 hours long. And even one hour is a long time to listen to obnoxious background noise, a dull voice, or a flat-out boring book.

Bonus Tip: Make a Favorites List

I always forget whatever book I was so excited to listen to next. Inevitably, I remember it when about halfway through my contingent, and finish that one only to discover that the book I was so excited about is not available or has a two and half star rating and a pile of scathing reviews. Always a disappointment. But I recently discovered you can create lists, so I’ve been looking up books as I think of them and adding them to a list if I find a version that meets my criteria. Now I have a short, curated list of books to choose from, and no longer wonder with furrowed brow what book I’ve forgotten.

Books I Love

Here are my recommendations if you’re wondering where to start:

I’ll have a follow-up post soon with children’s book recommendations for LibriVox!

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