I was talking to a publisher yesterday who told me he had just signed up for Audible and was about to give his first audio book a try after putting off the idea for years. It got me thinking about my own audio experience with books.
My first experience probably goes back to my Star Wars Story record (complete with ‘turn the page R2D2 tweets) which I played to death aged 9 or 10. It was a mixture of narration and sound clips from the film and accompanying picture book. I was hoping it would give a definitive explanation of whether Obi Wan Kenobi really was killed in that lightsabre battle (spoilers). The jury remained out for about thirty years.
As a sales consultant some 10 years later I spent an inordinate amount of time driving up and down the UK and Ireland. Audio books – first on cassettes (lots of cassettes) and then CDs (lots of them, too…) got me through a lot of hours. They were impossibly expensive to buy so there was a strong reliance on Library stock…which could be incredibly frustrating when a CD halfway through was missing or a tape was damaged. But it was the first time I started reading an author based on the strength of hearing one of their works read. The author was John Grisham, the book was The Firm, and the narrator was Scott Brick . I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d started at the top. Brick recorded over 250 title in a five year period at the beginning of his career and is, as I understand it, one of the most prominent names in the field. (Grisham is no slouch either)
Things have moved on a lot since then, and thankfully there’s no longer a need to buy a ridiculously expensive box set of a massively abridged version of a book at a motorway garage (or, as was the case on one memorable late night journey back to Oxford from Aberdeen as a sales rep working for an educational publisher relying on the only thing I had in my car which happened to be a simplified readers collection to keep me awake…I ended up picking up a hitchhiker when that failed, but therein lies a whole other story….)
Nowadays, I subscribe to Audible – literally and figuratively, and while this is not intended as an Audible promotion (I’m assured there are other options out there, but then there are other search engines than Google…they’re just not widely used…) I pay my monthly subscription of £7.99 which gives me my one credit. Occasionally I’ll top it up if I’ve got a lot of driving planned or doing work around the house that benefits from accompaniment (I do find my ‘preferred listening environment’ is more restricted than my kindle reading activities) but generally, my one credit does me just fine.
I have to say, I’m a big fan of audio books. Thinking it’s in any way inferior to the printed word is, for me, as outdated as thinking TV is behind movies. It’s not a case of laziness or dislike of reading. It’s just a case of ‘different’. and it certainly hasn’t reduced my consumption of the printed word – yes, reader, I have been known to take up the buy print and audio option at a reduced rate because I’m just so damned into a book that I don’t want to put it down just because I’ve got a three hundred mile road trip to make…
There are other benefits as the tech improves as well:
- Change the speed you listen at: okay, it can get a bit Micky Mouse if you push it too far, but there are a number of books I’ve listened to that have lost absolutely nothing from listening at x 1.5 speed.
- Syncing; if you’ve got gadgets around the house and you’re listening to something on your iPad, phone and Alexa? No problem. Pick up where you left off on one of the other devices.
- There’s some free stuff as well that you can download gratis if you’ve got membership. It’s not just the unsaleable tat either – we’re talking about real books, series or one-offs with names you’ll actually recognise.
At the end of the day, audio doesn’t diminish a book: it makes good books stand out even more and reveals some pretty glaring issues in those authors who might just get away with ‘bad’ writing and dialogue because they have a decent storyline.
A good audio book comes down to two things: a good story and a good narrator.
Here are six from the many that I would recommend if you like the sort of stuff I tend to talk about on this here site.
The Ones I’d Never Got Round to Reading in Print:
Dalziel and Pascoe: Author: Reginald Hill. Readers: varied.
Had I read any Reginald Hill before I happened to pick up On Belluah Heights from my library on tape many years ago? I don’t think so. I hadn’t seen any of the TV series either, but after listening to a few it made me realise exactly how much got missed out in tv adaptions: something I knew from print of course, but emphasized by listening. Apart from the fact that they’re fantastic books, the D&P series have benefited from strong narrators – over the years Brian Glover, Jonathan Keeble, Shaun Dooley and even the TV show’s on Pascoe, Colin Buchanan have all offered their versions. For me, it’s the latter I enjoy listening to most: he’s good with accents and has the expressionism you’d expect from an actor. Some of the books are stronger than others, but all are completely listenable.
The Film Star’s Autobiography
Scrappy Little Nobody: Author: Anna Kendrick. Reader: Anna Kendrick
I’m not a huge reader of movie star biographies or autobiographies, and I’m not the biggest fan in the world of some of Kendrick’s movies: they’re just not in my wheelhouse. But as a narrator of a whole bunch of funny stories, this is a joy (and she is, obviously, a hoot). There were others I could easily have chosen here – other female readers I’ve thoroughly enjoyed have been Tina Fey and Carrie Fisher, while John Lithgow and Billy Crystal were both interesting and engaging. I don’t feel the need to go down the reality star/ footballer route yet, but it’s encouraged me to pick up a few autobiographies I wouldn’t otherwise have considered.
The All Star Cast
The Beastie Boys Book: Authors Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, Reader: Everyone…
The love and effort that went into this one is really something else. As well as a fascinating tale of the Boys’ history, some of which I was familiar with in the abstract but hilarious to hear told from their own mouths, it’s got a cast to die for which really shows the esteem the group were held in: how else do you explain chapters read by such a diverse list as Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Chuck D, Will Ferrell, Rosie Perez, Amy Poehler, John C. Reilly and many, many more. At times hilarious, heartbreaking and insightful it’s one for the ages. And if you’re wondering how an audio book handles a photo section, you ain’t heard anything until you hear Spike Jonz’ contribution…
Comoran Strike books – Author: Robert Galbraith, Reader: Robert Glenister
It was always going to be a tough ask for anyone to read the works of JK Rowling after Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter – almost as hard as for the author herself to write something new. But for me both challenges have been met with the Cormoran Strike series. Good plots and well drawn character relationships, delivered perfectly by Glenister- another who apparently finds accents no challenge at all. And, as I mentioned earlier, an audio book can highlight deficits in an author’s writing: the easy going narration of these books give further testimony (if it were needed) against the haters who claim Rowling is just a lucky-but-not-very-good writer.
The Long One…
The Stand – Author: Stephen King: Reader: Grover Gardner
You could choose from a whole bunch of King novels here – The unabridged version of The Stand runs to a ear bending 47 hours and 47 minutes read by Gardner in a wonderfully gravelly voice that is perfectly suited to the story. King’s books have been covered by a whole range of narrators over the years – from actors like Steven Webber, James Franco, Will Patton and Michael C Hall to King himself, and the late veteran narrator Frank Muller (also a Grisham regular) and, not surprisingly given his status, attracts the creme de la creme of production and voice talent.
There’s plenty of other long books out there – looking at my library King may take the top three spots in terms of length, but not far behind him are the likes of Justin Cronin, John Irving and James Ellroy (who can be difficult to listen to, given his staccato style of writing).
The One Read by the Author
The Graveyard Book: Author: Neil Gaiman. Reader: Neil Gaiman
We may expect a sterling performance from an actor reading their own or others work. And we may expect an author to know exactly what they want from a reading of their work, but we don’t necessarily think of an author as a ‘performer’. There’s a considerable difference between doing a short book reading promotional tour to a full blown production of their own work.
Gaiman has form in the field – from the shortest children’s stories to the more recent likes of Norse Mythology and I’d have been happy choosing any of them as an example – I’m certainly always more than happy listening to them. He has a chocolate, warming tone that is as relaxed and skillful as his writing and The Graveyard Book is a fine example of it.
There are plenty of other examples of authors reading their own works – some more successful than others, and some clearly done for the love of it rather than any financial requirements. Barry Eisler does a good job on pretty much all of his books, Stephen King has read a number of his – to a slightly more slit reaction, although his On Writing is a fascinating listen, and Lawrence Block has ‘done it himself’ on some of his books, letting ‘professionals’ do others.
So there are a few thoughts on the quality of audio books today. No more expensive than their paper siblings, and of the highest production quality.
You can find all of my reviews – of audio books and everything else at my Amazon review account here : have a look, and if you find them helpful, give ’em a vote 🙂
Me? I was surprised to have my father tell me that he’d been listening to my book
I’d forgotten I’d enabled text-to-speech and Alexa, bless her, was doing her darnedest to figure out what it was all about.
It’s a first step before I can get Tom Waits to do the sort of reading I really want on them…