Sunday, November 2, 2008

Listening to books

First, I am thinking about renaming this blog "Mike is thinking about books but he's too busy to blog about it." But since my original blog title was already a bit too long I guess I'll refrain. I am disappointed I only managed four blogs through the entire month of October, and none in the second half. Let's see if November is any better.

I listened to two books on cd this past month that drove home a point I already knew. There are three types of audio book readers:

1. The author

2. A professional reader

3. A celebrity, usually an actor

And that is the order of preference. Believe me. It doesn't matter how bad, how unmelodious, nasally, gravelly or shrill, an author's voice is, no one will read their book better than they do.

For example, one of the first audio books I ever did was an abridged* version of Foundation by Isaac Asimov. At first I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A stereotypical Brooklyn Jewish accent was not setting the tone for far future galactic empires. Then I flipped the case over and saw it was Asimov himself doing the reading. Ok, fine, I thought, but he really isn't any good.

When I finished the tape I went back and got the next book in the series. This was read by a professional reader. Ah, good I thought, this is much better. For about five minutes, then I missed Asimov! As good as the reading was, it was just flat and emotionless compared to what Isaac brought to it.

Here's a more recent example. Last month I listened to Sex, Drug & Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman, read by the author. As you will see if you listen to this sample excerpt, your first thought won't be "wow, what a great voice." But listen to the stress he puts on words like "completely," "vaguely," "feels," and "ever" in that short passage. Listen to the longer pauses, where I'm pretty sure you will find commas instead of periods of you were reading this. No professional would read it exactly the same as Chuck did and he's the one who knows how it supposed to sound!

Here are two examples from the other end of the spectrum, celebrity readers. With all due respect to John Ritter, Rip Torn and too many others to list, if you are not a regular audio book listener and you recognize the name of the person reading the book, skip it. Assuming its not the author of course.

I did a Dave Barry collection one time, read by Dave Barry himself and it was hilarious. Several months later I found another Dave Barry collection but this one was read by John Ritter. As it turns out there were a few articles that appeared in both books, so I could really compare apples to apples. There was one about some guys who participate in parades as a group on their riding lawn mowers. When Dave read this it was funny, certainly funnier than if you just read it yourself. When John Ritter read it, it was actually unfunny. And not just because I'd heard it before and I knew the punch lines. In fact there was one particular line I was waiting for, perfectly timed and delivered by Dave, that Ritter read straight through like he was trying to finish the paragraph in one breath.

And that is the essence of my next complaint. I mentioned recently that I listened to A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, read by Norman Dietz--more on him in a minute. I just tried to listen to Armageddon in Retrospect, also by Vonnegut. This however was read by Rip Torn. A fine actor, but he sure seemed to be in a hurry while reading this. I'm guessing he was paid a flat fee and not by the hour. I just had the feeling he was trying to get the whole thing done as fast as possible or they offered him a bonus if they could fit it on four cds and save money in production. I actually gave up on it and couldn't finish it.

Ok, back to Norman Deitz. Let me just say right here that Recorded Books needs to do the world a service and hire him to read every single word Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut have ever written. If you listen to this sample of Huckleberry Finn or this sample of Tom Sawyer you'll see what I mean. He isn't just reading the book, he's performing the book. And performing it brilliantly.

There are some exceptions, there are a few professional readers that I just can't listen to. But there are many readers who are so good that I'll get a book just because they are reading it, even if the book itself didn't look that interesting at first. Besides the aforementioned Mr. Dietz here are some strong recommendations: Michael Pritchard (especially reading Rex Stout and Clive Cussler), Simon Prebble (Dick Francis), Frederick Davidson (P.G. Wodehouse), Mark Hammer (the only way to do Faulkner), Barbara Rosenblat (Dorothy Gilman) & George Guidall (too many to list!).

I know I am leaving many out others, I will try and compile a more comprehensive list in the near future. In fact, talking about audio books was one of the first reasons I ever thought about doing a blog. I also wanted to talk about something else I'm currently listening to, but I guess I'll save that for Thursday.

*Note: abridged books are a travesty and should be illegal. I only listened to them at first because I didn't know any better and I was paying for them; the longer the book, the more it cost. This was before I discovered our local library system has more audio books than the store that was renting them.

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