What’s the best way to listen to ebooks?

My wife used to love reading but since her stroke has aphasia, no speech, limited vision and limited dexterity in her left hand only. She can select TV channels on a remote but she cannot read a short news story let alone a novel, so she listens to the radio and watches a lot of TV. I thought of getting her a Kindle e-reader but they don’t seem to do text to speech any more. A shop assistant suggested a tablet with a text-to-speech app. If so, which tablet/which app? It needs a really simple interface or my wife will not be able to use it without assistance.

I have installed OverDrive for RNIB talking books on my phone. This is far too fiddly for my wife to use. Also, the choice of books is limited. Peter

There are lots of answers to this question, but they may not work for your wife. The possibilities include good old-fashioned cassette tape recorders, specialised talking book readers such as the Victor Reader Stream, CD players, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets and PCs. You may need to use different technologies for different types of material.

Either way, remember that cassettes have been doing this job for decades, and there are thousands of tapes on eBay.co.uk. Prices vary, but you can often pick up cheap bundles for £1 per book, or less. CD audiobooks are not as common, but you may find some titles your wife would like.


In the future, I may have a two-word answer: Amazon Alexa. The longer version would be “a voice-recognition system with intelligent personal assistant software that can play audio on demand”. There are other AI-based PAs including Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, but Alexa is already available on the Amazon Echo, which makes it instantly available for voice commands. Google has yet to launch its copycat product, Google Home, in the UK, but it’s expected in this year’s second quarter. Alexa will also appear on Amazon’s £39.99 Fire TV Stick on 6 April.

Alexa won’t work for your wife if she has “no speech”, but voice-driven AI systems like Alexa can not only answer questions and play audio, they can operate a lot of smart gadgets. They should make life easier for people who, for whatever reason, struggle with small screens, tiny buttons and incomprehensible user interfaces. That includes me.

Kindle talk

Text-to-speech (TTS) is a relatively old technology: Texas Instruments started making the speech synthesis chips used in its Speak & Spell toy in the 1970s. Amazon introduced text-to-speech in the Kindle 2, but it ran into objections from the Authors Guild. In a New York Times opinion piece, The Kindle Swindle?, the Guild’s president argued that ebook rights don’t include audio rights, and authors needed the extra cash. (See my story from 2009: Amazon caves to Authors Guild over Kindle’s text-to-speech reading.)

But now, at long last, you can get a Kindle option. Amazon is offering a Kindle Paperwhite Blind and Visually Impaired Readers Bundle for £134.98. This includes a 7th-generation Kindle ebook reader, a small external Kindle Audio Adapter, and VoiceView for Kindle software. The audio adapter has an audio socket for headphones or speakers. It works with Kindle ebooks that support VoiceView, but it doesn’t play music. Incidentally, in the US, Amazon sells the Kindle Audio Adapter separately for $19.99 (£16.44).

Audible audiobooks

Audible Inc was one of the pioneers of digital audiobooks, and Amazon bought that company in 2008. Unfortunately, the UK’s Amazon Prime service doesn’t include a selection of Audible audio books alongside the free movies, but there is some hope: American Prime users now get free Audible Channels, for streaming only. Either way, it might be worth subscribing to Audible, which costs £7.99 per month after a free first month. Your wife might like its BBC Collection in particular.

There are numerous ways to listen to Audible books, including Amazon Fire tablets and the Echo. There are apps for Apple’s iOS, Google Android, Microsoft Windows and Windows 10. You can also listen online via a “cloud player” or use a compatible MP3 player. Audible has its own file formats – AA, AAX, AAX+ and M4B – which include DRM copy protection. However, audiobooks can be transferred to other devices via iTunes or Audible Manager software for Windows. (I’m not a subscriber so I’m not certain this still works.)

There are several other audiobook services that are worth a look. These include OverDrive – which you already have – Downpour and Hoopla. The Open Culture, Project Gutenberg and LibriVox websites are good sources of free audiobooks.

Amazon also offers free audiobooks. You can find them by searching for “audible audiobooks free”.



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