The BJR Journal: Do You Hear What I Read?

Columnist Jones
I've written in the past about listening to audio books in the car, about how it may double the number of books one can plow through in a year. But the quandary one faces in the audio realm is choosing just which books to listen to rather than read. It can make the difference between discovering a treasure or writing one off. The analogy may be drawn between reading a paper book and consuming an electronic book on your Kindle or the like: certain books really should be read on paper, i.e.; graphic novels, books with copious footnotes, books by Mark Z Danielewski (you get the picture). Some people also feel that proper respect be given to particular classics, that they must be read in paper form and not on e-book or audio. A friend of mine feels this way about Proust. With Proust there is nothing really lost if you read him on Kindle or even listen to a reading by the right vocal actor, it is simply a matter of perceived propriety, of deference to a revered master of the form.

So the question persists: what is acceptable to listen to rather than read? History (i.e.; Unbroken, The Bully Pulpit, Destiny of the Republic), for me, is at the top of that list for the following reasons:
  • It is suited to a single narrator. 
  • It is a category I tend to skip over when purchasing paper or e-books.
  • It does not require review or mulling over to get the full effect of its objective.
Most important in the list above is the single narrative voice. In an audio book, the general rule is: The fewest narrative voices the better. A first person narrator is ideal. Third person narrative can be acceptable if there are more than one actor (The Help), or if the actor is an exemplary mimic.  However, when in a novel there are many different characters and their voices are read by just one vocal actor, it can lead to an outright vexing, or worse, laugh out loud audio book experience. A Feast of Crows by Martin is one example, where the character of Brienne of Tarth comes out sounding like Barry Fitzgerald. Another is Winter of the World by Follett, in which the rather elegant character of Daisy winds up sounding like a cross between Olive Oyl and Betty Boop. It can truly spoil the experience and is even more odious if you have read the earlier parts of those respective series. In short, my advice is to avoid third person fiction while choosing an audiobook.

Olive Oyl
In some cases, listening to the audio book, along with or instead of reading, can greatly improve the literary experience. Two examples of this phenomenon are: Ulysses by Joyce and The Third Policeman by O'Brien. In each case, the vocal actor is Jim Norton, a superior reader. He recites the text with the correct accent and inflection, he is a master of the patois in each work, resulting in an enhanced and thoroughly enjoyable experience. I would caution, when you are considering an audio book, to first listen to a preview. Listen to that voice and ask yourself: Can I sustain, in some cases, thirty hours of that nasal twang, pretentious trill, or impassive monotone? If you you can, great. Go for it. Just remember you can always shut it off and go buy the paperback.