Earbud Lit

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Ever listened to Moby Dick? Forest Lewis has. In fact, he listened to Melville’s novel (all 21.5 hours of it) 5 times in a row one summer.

Such audiobook jags have helped Lewis to think about the difference between reading books in print and listening to recorded books. And he does view them in distinct terms. For instance, he favors the term “performer” over “narrator” or “reader.” Lewis says this not to bury the audiobook, however, but to praise it. The human voice is what enables the audiobook to transcend the book’s limitations.

Lewis’s most provocative claim is that listening to audiobooks has made him a better reader of other books. Specifically, his own reading has become more of a performance. Here’s how he describes reading Jane Austen to himself: “My own silent reading of Austen is cliché, stodgy and far too 19th century, as if the characters were trying to bore themselves.” Reading Austen’s prose aloud has helped his inner voice to become far more expressive and, at least when reading Austen, downright funny.

There’s also a list of recommendations for when you’re done with Moby Dick:

 

“Forest’s TOP TEN AUDIOBOOKS OF ALL TIME”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, performed by Juliet Stevenson

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, performed by George Guidall

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, performed by Martin Jarvis

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, performed by Sissy Spacek

William Faulkner, Light in August, performed by Mark Hammer

Homer, The Odyssey, performed by Ian McKellen

Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, performed by Ruby Dee

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, performed by Frank Muller

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, performed by Rob Inglis

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, performed by Davina Porter

 

The full story is available at The Stake: “Earbud Lit: How Audio Makes Familiar Books Strange.”

The Voice of the Poets

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There’s a terrific interview up on Slate between Bruce Holsinger, a historical novelist and professor of medieval literature, and Simon Vance, one of the great audiobook narrators. Pro that he is, Vance dispatches with the reading vs “cheating” debate in the first line in order to clear the way for more substantial questions about the audiobook as an art form in its own right. He makes a persuasive case for the narrator’s ability to enrich the reading experience.

Perhaps the most interesting question posed here is whether there’s such a thing as a “period voice” for, say, a 16th-century landowner. After all, narrators have enough trouble trying to voice characters without worrying about stuff like vowel shifts. Vance proposes an interesting compromise between authenticity and entertainment—or, as he puts it, no Swedish Chef voices. You’ll definitely want to hear Vance’s Henry VIII in the recording of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

A recording of Holsinger and Vance’s conversation can be found here: “The Voice of the Poets: The Life and Work of an Audiobook Narrator.”

On Reading Aloud

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When is a good time to listen to an audiobook? If you’re Sam Allingham, it’s while scanning the bar codes of old library books. Mindless labor provides time to lose himself in storytelling: “At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie.” Use of the outdated term “books on tape” here is deliberate. For Allingham, the term evokes the childhood experience of being read to by our parents. The lullaby is never far away in this account.

Allingham’s essay for The Millions is noteworthy for its attention to Librivox, a website offering free recordings of thousands of out-of-copyright books. Avid listeners will know what a wonderful resource this is. They will also know how exasperating it can be to hear a great book butchered by an enthusiastic amateur. Allingham recalls a few of the worthy and worthless narrators, and ultimately praises the repository for this very quality. For him, the most memorable recordings have been by volunteers who make up for a lack of professionalism with a sense of “personal attachment” (for example, a Southern American woman reading Thomas Hardy).

You’ll find other recommendations—and warnings—here: “On Reading Aloud.”