Computers Reading Books Aloud

Tilde Lowengrimm
4 min readSep 9, 2023
“I guess it makes sense for a robot to read an e-book” by brianjmatis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

I love reading and learning, but my eyes spend so much time looking at bright screens. Sometimes I want to curl up with a good book and let my eyes relax too.

Not every book, paper, epigraph, or long blog post has an audio edition. This is especially true of obscure and technical material. I’ve found this to be particularly true of my favorite queer works and books about Judaism. Making audiobooks is an expensive professional endeavor! It absolutely makes sense not to commit those resources when just getting something published can be such an uphill challenge.

That’s why I love Voice Dream. I really can’t recommend it enough for people who use iOS & macOS for their main devices. Voice dream is like a little robot in my phone which can read aloud any PDF, ePub, or web page is truly magical. Even with specialist/technical vocabulary (or the weird proper nouns in that fantasy or sci-fi novel) you can add custom pronunciations. Everything runs offline on your device, but it supports iCloud to sync your documents and reading status between your devices.

You can select custom voices or use some of their incredible built-in options. I like Sharon from Acapela; it’s incredibly clear even at very high speeds. That’s another thing — listening to audio is one of the few methods consistently demonstrated to be able to increase your reading speed while maintaining comprehension & retention. And when I need to slow down the playback, that’s a good signal that it’s time to get ready for bed.

Still, even with the finest robots, human performances are so much better, especially for fiction. When someone has gone to the effort of recording an audiobook, I prefer to buy them from Libro.fm (referral link). They’re a social purpose corporation, care about DEI, and let you support your local book store when you shop there. Most importantly, all your audiobooks can be downloaded as DRM-free mp3 files so you can archive them on your own, and use any audiobook player you like.

My current audiobook app of choice is BookPlayer which works great, and has a ton of flexibility and convenience. I’m thinking of migrating my book library to Plex and switching to Prologue. I love the convenience of Plex as a potential single place to store & access my whole media library. Unfortunately, it’s very much focused on TV & movies, with music & audiobooks second, and text books/documents completely unsupported.

I’m not saying that you have to buy audiobooks! Your local library almost certainly has a huge selection of audiobooks available through Libby and Hoopla and probably other services too. Most libraries I’ve used are also really good about getting even obscure books if you ask nicely. There’s no need to limit yourself to one library either. In California, loads of local libraries are open to any CA resident, so you can really stack up those library cards to give you access to a huge selection of books.

Voice Dream supports every type of document. It’s pretty easy to send webpages there to be read aloud. But it’s very much, uh, book-forward, I guess I should say? The organization and library management seems to be oriented around the dynamics of like books and papers and longer form materials rather than thousands of short news articles.

For shorter material, I use Reader. It’s truly a fantastic combination of an RSS reader, read-it-later tool, and library manager. It even supports PDFs and ePubs, but kinda the inverse of Voice Dream, it seems more oriented around many shorter documents than like reading whole books.

Reader has built-in support for reading things aloud, and I use that all the time. Unfortunately, the voices they’ve picked don’t work very well above “2x” speed — they just seem to skip words rather than actually speeding up. Their read-aloud system doesn’t work offline. And there’s no way to queue a couple of articles up for back-to-back reading as far as I can tell. Which is frustrating and makes hands-free reading pretty unsupported. But Reader is a pretty early product and they’ve been making huge improvements very quickly since release, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see these foibles improved in months rather than years.

All of this is a huge accessibility step forward. I know that my vision isn’t getting any better, so the more I can rest my eyes, the longer I hope to be able to use them. And I wear headphones roughly all the time to give me some semblance of volume control for reality. So it’s nice to also use their audio playback features for something.

How do you read books? What are some of your favorite sources for DRM-free media? What accessibility, library-management, and playback tools make it easy for you to enjoy things and fit them into your life?

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