It’s summer, which means lots of folks are on the road: for fun, for conferences, or for research. Which means that many of us have lots of time during which we’re not at our desks. If we happen to be sitting in an airport terminal, then we can read, or work on our laptops or iPads. But often when traveling we’re otherwise occupied—for example, driving—and can only listen to our iPods.
As is specified in my ProfHacker contract, I love me some The Hold Steady. But when I’m travelling I also love listening to audiobooks and podcasts. Academics are on the whole curious folks, and these two formats allow me to learn when I’m driving or flying (or, for that matter, when I’m mowing the lawn or walking my dog).
It might seem masochistic to suggest audiobooks to academics. Many of us spend the bulk of our work time—which is to say, the bulk of our time—with texts, either reading or writing. I teach, research, and write about nineteenth-century novels, and the last thing I want to do on a nine-hour car trip is listen to Moby Dick or Bleak House (though I love both books). Instead, I use audiobooks to catch up on fields outside my own.
Often, I choose audiobooks and podcasts that foster my amateur interest in science and technology. Of course, listening to Briane Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos or WNYC’s RadioLab (in turns, one of my favorite audiobooks and my absolute favorite podcast) won’t enable me to jump onto any research projects with my colleagues in the sciences. But listening to popular science books and podcasts does help me—however briefly—think about intellectual questions outside of my narrow disciplinary concerns. The scientists featured on Radiolab, in particular, frequently astound me, both with the questions they ask and the surprising answers they get to those questions (one of my favorite episodes, and a good primer on the show, is “Memory and Forgetting”). I expect most ProfHacker readers would agree that a broad education contributes to a healthy mind, and I see audiobooks as a great way to continue such an education aurally while saving the little time I have for close, attentive reading for texts in my field.
Where to Find Audiobooks
So how would one find audiobooks and podcasts? Librivox is a library of free audiobooks, all read by volunteers. I’ve found some wonderful audiobooks here, but, because the site relies on volunteer labor, the reader quality is uneven. Also, because Librivox can only post titles in the public domain, you won’t find the latest bestsellers in any field here. If you’d like to listen to classic fiction, though, try a Librivox recording before paying for another one elsewhere.
The largest audiobook store online is Audible. In fact, the audiobooks available through the iTunes store are actually Audible audiobooks. You can buy books individually on Audible (or through iTunes), or pay for a monthly subscription that—depending on the plan you sign up for—will allow you to download one or two books each month. Because I listen primarily to contemporary, popular science and history books, I usually download from Audible.
Where to Find Podcasts
The umbrella term “podcast” includes many different types of content: from amateur radio shows produced in people’s homes to high-definition video shows produced by major, old media companies. No doubt many of you noticed that I listed Radiolab—a show produced by NPR station WYNC and aired on many NPR radio stations across the country—as my favorite podcast. Many traditional radio shows are now available as podcasts. Many, like Radiolab, offer extra content through their podcast feeds: unaired segments, bonus interviews, etc. I subscribe to my favorite radio shows as podcasts because I can then listen to them whenever I want, rather than planning when I need to be by the radio. Because my computer automatically downloads each episode and syncs it to my iPhone, I never miss episodes of my favorite shows. In my podcast directory, traditional radio shows mingle with smaller shows by individuals and new media companies.
Unlike most audiobooks, most podcasts are free. The most popular way to get them is, as the name podcast suggests, though Apple’s iTunes Music Store. That said, podcasts rely on basic RSS for publishing, and so there are plenty of podcatchers out there for folks who don’t want to contribute to Apple’s plans for world domination. If you’re a podcast listener who doesn’t use iTunes, let us know your favorite program for catching them in the comments.
I considered adding a list of my favorite audiobooks and podcasts to the end of this post, but I’d rather hear from you. Please use to the comments to recommend a few good audiobooks and/or podcasts to the ProfHacker community (and I’ll do the same).
[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Brian Lane Winfield Moore.]