The art of listening
I learned to love audiobooks when I was a hardcore commuter, driving 132 miles round trip to work each day. Music can go far in such circumstances, but an audiobook can make a 75-minute commute a pleasure. I can even foggily remember times when I was sorry I had arrived at my destination. Audiobook lovers will understand that sentiment.
Audiobooks are growing in popularity, but they still seem to suffer from a stigma in some people's eyes. That's not reading, purists sniff. That's being a child and having a bedtime story read to you.
Listening to an audiobook is a different experience than reading a book. I suppose you could say that listening to a book is a passive experience. That it minimizes to some extent the mind's imagination, that it curtails the reader's involvement with the story.
But as anyone who has listened to books will tell you, you still need to focus on the words and pay attention to the story. On occasion, I have had an inept reader or been too preoccupied to pay attention to a book. In those circumstances, you might be hearing it, but you're not reading that book. It's the equivalent of that moment when you are reading a book and you keep finding yourself reading the same paragraph over and over. Your mind is not engaged to this task.
But the audiobook also offers advantages. It allows you to squeeze reading into circumstances where having a book is impossible: driving a car, talking a long walk, exercising, cleaning the house or doing yard work. It engages the mind on one level and still allows you to pursue other tasks that might be critical in this multitasking age.
It has another important aspect: An audiobook is linear. Unless there is a technical problem, you are determined to break the sequence or you are just stupid, an audiobook comes at you in the way the author intended. Some of us (and I shall remain nameless in this circumstance) have short attention spans. We, on occasion, have been known to hop around and skip bits here and there. The audiobook makes me behave, and I am usually grateful for it.
What makes good a audiobook? In my opinion, there are two basic requirements: great source material and talented readers. Bad books won't get better on audio, but great books can be injured by dull, listless readers. Great readers, such as the late, great Frank Muller or Jim Dale, can turn books into extraordinary experiences. They can even make routine or mundane books into things worth spending time on.
Likewise, LibriVox, an effort to offer audiobooks free with the help of volunteer readers, is hit or miss. Readers can be quite good or awful. There is a lot to be said for free, however.
In my opinion, audiobooks have to be unabridged. I will leave the abridged books to the folks who love Reader's Digest condensed books. I am affirmatively a snob about this. If I determine that a book is worth reading (or listening to) I want to hear all of what the author created.
I also will say this about audiobooks. When I was in my heavy listening phase, I listened to dozens of books that I had already read. In most of those cases, hearing the book being read offered new and wonderful insights. It was as simple as hearing the words out loud that brought me pleasure. The joy of a great writer is in how they assemble words. Even when I am reading a book, I will read particularly good passages out loud to better appreciate the style and talent of the writer.
So what are some favorites?
—"Angela's Ashes," written and read by Frank McCourt. The wonderful memoir of teacher and writer McCourt recalls his miserable Irish Catholic childhood. I could relate to a lot of it, but some of it left me horrified. When a writer is also a good reader, and the story is a memoir, the audiobook moves in front of the printed book in my opinion.
—The Harry Potter books, read by Jim Dale in the U.S. This is the defining audiobook experience. It's as marvelous for families as it is for old men. Dale is a gifted voice actor. Anyone who has heard these has been impressed.
—"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," written by Robert M. Pirsig and read by Michael Kramer. This is an extraordinary book that wraps a father-son road trip around a primer on philosophy. It is moving in many ways. I read it when it was just released in high school but came back to it 25 years later when I could really understand the protagonist's struggle. Marvelous.
—"Cry the Beloved Country," written by Alan Paton and read by Michael York. A book I read in college but did not fully understand until hearing it read and understanding its rhythms. Deeply emotional and resonant.
—Books read by Frank Muller. I will cite two among the hundreds he recorded. Muller read Stephen King's "Wizard and Glass" in the Dark Tower series. Muller was the best man, bar none, to read Stephen King. I still deeply miss his talent. He also recorded "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. He made Melville's diversions into the minutiae of whaling fascinating.
Do you listen to audiobooks? Do you have a few favorites? Do you have a favorite reader that you look for? Do you search for authors or readers? Share your thoughts with us.
Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.