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The Virtues Of Audio Books

Nov 25, 2007
I first got into the audio books habit working at a temporary data entry job. One of the few benefits to engaging in such a mundane task all day is the ability to wear headphones. Listening to the same pop songs hour after hour quickly becomes almost as tedious as silence, so I started to borrow books on tape from the library. While listening to a book may seem like a serious distraction, I -along with many others at my place of employment- learned that even a brain of average capacity can swiftly adapt to the dual tasks of keying names and numbers and following the twists and turns of a plot.

Since then, I have come to appreciate the experience of listening to books. Many people take them on long drives. While I haven't had many occasions to do this, I can appreciate the companionship a book would provide on a long, solitary journey. I have, however, found other good uses for them. They make an excellent accompaniment to certain kinds of exercise. I'm not a jogger, but since I see many people running down the street or through parks with headphones on, it's a fairly safe assumption some are listening to books rather than music. Ditto with treadmills at health clubs (or at home). You can also listen while cooking, cleaning up or other household tasks, so long as there are no loud noises in the background (like a vacuum cleaner). If a book is especially engaging, you can, of course, simply listen to it while doing nothing else.

Since I started listening to audio books, about ten years ago, there has been a great increase in their popularity. Formats have also changed. While tapes are still available, CDs started to replace them as the favored format several years ago. Now, with the mp3 revolution, downloads seem to be the wave of the future. Regardless of the format, however, the experience is pretty much the same. I actually prefer tapes to CDs (I still don't have an mp3 player -I tend to be one of the last holdouts when it comes to new technology; I got my first DVD player only a couple of years ago, long after VHS became almost obsolete), because they are simpler to start and stop.

What are the best kinds of audio books to listen to? It depends, of course, on your tastes. Suspense and mystery novels seem to be the easiest to locate, though you can also find nonfiction (everything from self-help to history), classics and instructional programs (such as foreign languages). One rule I have with audio books is that I almost never get anything that is abridged. This is especially true for fiction. I really don't understand the rationale behind abridged novels. Is it to save time? Yet, most people who purchase or rent audio books are doing so in order to fill time, so why skimp on the length? As I see it, any novel that would not be seriously diminished by abridgement is not worth reading in the first place (either printed or audio). Even genre fiction is ruined by abridgement. Often, mysteries and action plots, for example, are fairly complex. I am lucky if I can keep up with what's going on in a full length spy novel; cut out some of the exposition and "minor" scenes, and I am completely lost. One exception to this rule might be nonfiction in a genre in which I am not particularly interested in general. For example, I might conceivably listen to an abridgement of somebody's ten volume history of the Roman Empire. In this case, I'd probably never get around to reading the whole thing, and since it isn't a specialty of mine, I don't mind missing some of the finer points. In general however, in case I haven't made this clear by now, abridgement is close to sacrilege where books are concerned.

There is a certain kind of literary snob who does not consider audio books real books. By his or her criterion, if you've listened to a book, you haven't "really" read it. We could argue the semantics of whether listening to a book can be literally called "reading" or not, but this is not really the point. When I've listened to an audio book, I tend to say I've listened to it rather than read it, but I've heard others say they've read a book they've listened to. Definitions aside, the question is, does listening provide the same experience as reading the printed version? I would say not entirely, but the comparison does not necessarily favor the printed book. A lot depends on the narrator, of course, but a well told audio book can bring a book to life in a way ink simply cannot. In an interesting way, the new technology that makes listening to a book possible actually harkens back to the very old tradition of storytelling, which predates the written word by millenia.

As I see it, certain kinds of books favor the printed version, others the audio. Some authors, such as Jack Keruoac, seem at their most natural when you can hear them spoken out loud.
On the other hand, books that require a lot of, shall we say left-brained concentration, are more written-word friendly. Sometimes it depends on the listener. For instance, I enjoy reading Russian novels, but I would not attempt to listen to Tolstoy or Dostoyevskly. I find all the unfamiliar names to be too much of a challenge, and the printed page allows me to take my time and, when necessary, go back and verify who is who. On the other hand, someone whose native language is Russian (or a scholar in the field), would have no problem listening. The same is true for non-fiction. If the field is very obscure to me, listening to it would probably mean missing key points. If it's something I'm comfortable with, however, this would not be the case.

Narrating an audio book is a subtle art. If you listen to enough books, you will start to recognize the very skillful pros who have narrated hundreds, such as George Guidall. The trick, as far as I can tell (in addition to having a good, clear voice, of course), is to put just the right amount of inflection into the reading. It also requires the skill to do different voices, which is no easy matter in a novel full of male and female characters of varying age, background, geographical origin and education. A few audio books have tried the format of using multiple narrators. While this sounds like a good idea in theory, in practice I find it to be a distraction. The most glaring mistake made by narrators that I've listened to is overacting. Narrators should not, as a rule, be acting at all. If they put too much of their personalities into a reading, they are violating one of the primary virtues of books -allowing the reader to reconstruct the book in his or her own imagination. If the narrator does this, thereby intruding on the reader's mental boundaries, he is actually giving credence to the anti-audio book argument, transforming the book into more of a radio play (nothing wrong with these, they just are not books). Most publishers, however, find skillful narrators who do not overstep their bounds, but put just the right amount of inflection and emotion into the action and dialogue.

Audio books are convenient and pleasurable, but I think they are also one aspect of contemporary life that, as I suggested earlier, actually bring back some of the virtues of slower-paced, pre-modern cultures. You may use an audio book to distract you from tedious chores or a mundane day job (a situation, alas, in which I still often find myself) or from hundreds of miles of highway, but if you are listening to a good, well narrated book, you are getting something more than a mere distraction. You are participating in the time-honored (if updated to fit the information age) tradition of storytelling. This can serve as a refreshing addition, sometimes even a necessary antidote, to some of life's everyday events.
About the Author
Larry Christopher is a writer and researcher on a variety of topics, including cultural issues, metaphysics and health. You can find his audio books blog at http://www.audiobooks-online.org
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