Listening to Literature: The Highs and Lows of Audio Books

Day after day I commute to work in my car, which does not get anything approaching decent radio reception until about three-quarters of the way through the trip. So to stem the scenic boredom, I listen to audiobooks. Since my i-pod quit working recently, I’ve been listening on my trusty Kindle 2, but that’s beside the point.

No matter what the device, I’m happy to be able to “read” while I’m driving, thereby doubling my yearly reading list and satisfying my literary curiosity twofold. I tend to listen to newer releases that I might not normally buy in hardcover and save the actual reading for either free classics or current favorite authors on the Kindle.

Over the years, I’ve listened to many audiobooks and I have to say, although most, depending on the quality of the book, simply provide a pleasant and informative ride home, a small percentage can truly enhance or completely ruin the reading/listening experience.

  • One example of an audiobook enhancing the experience is The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Besides the novel is very well written, poignant, and provocative, the audio version utilizes a cast of accomplished actors to read the various chapters, which alternate in character point-of-view. I can’t express how much a good vocal performance can immerse the listener in the story.
  • Another title that takes advantage of a full cast of actors is Colum McCann’s, Let The Great World Spin; once again a multi-point-of-view tale, all of which converge on a single common event: Philippe Petit’s wire walk across the Twin Towers span in 1974. This is a great book made even more robust by some inspired voice casting.

Certain voice-over actors are exemplary all by themselves:

  • George Guidall (Exit Ghost by Roth, The Dark Tower series by King, American Gods by Gaiman)
  • Don Leslie (Columbine by Dave Cullen, Blood and Thunder by Sides, Blind Descent by Tabor)
  • Jim Norton (The Third Policeman by O’Brien, Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce)

They stand out in my mind. Norton’s performance on The Third Policeman is phenomenal, his spot-on accent is essential to the story, and vaults the audio recording above the experience of reading the book. I recommend it to everyone who likes to laugh. Other notable narrators include Jim Dale, Kate Reading, Cambell Scott, and Will Patton.

Usually, authors reading their own work make up the lower end of the quality scale. Though, I must quickly mention certain authors as pleasant exceptions. Novelist T C Boyle (The Road To Wellville), for instance, is a very good reader and at times can reveal his unique perspective in the reading. Many non-fiction authors, who at their best lend an authenticity to the material, narrate their own books. Some capable writers/readers in this genre are Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down The Bones).

Historic performances are precluded from this observation as well, like E B White reading Charlotte’s Web or John Cheever reading from his oeuvre of short stories. Though, sadly these exceptions are few. One more typical example of an author reading his own stuff is the Hugo award-winning James Patrick Kelly, a great Sci-Fi short Story writer, but an abysmal actor/reader, whose performance actually detracts from the quality of his work.

Just as there are outstandingly good performances there are outstandingly awful performances, so awful sometimes as to be nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying and to raise goose flesh up the nape of the neck. One recent example that comes immediately to mind is Under The Dome, by Stephen King. King’s story is typically engrossing, humorous, and creepy, but the narrator, Raul Esparza ceaselessly distracts his listeners with inauthentic accents and grating vocalization.

His acting is fine, yet his attempt at regional inflection for the characters of this tale, which is set in a small town in Maine, modulate from a British-y Katherine Hepburn to an effeminate Crispin Glover to a wispy southern drawl. All these disastrous choices combine for a horrifying experience, and I don’t mean in a good way.

So by all means get out your iPods, Kindles, and the like and start downloading those audio titles (I use Audible.com). Just beware of the monotonous sleep-inducers and the story-killing whiners. I recommend listening to a sample before you buy; and the larger the cast, the better. Read my lips: listen to a book.

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