Sunday, August 5, 2007

In defense of audiobooks

I was quite startled to see an article entitled "Your Cheatin' Listening Ways" in the New York Times on Thursday that slams the audiobook industry and implies that listening to a book is a form of cheating. It surprised me because audiobooks are extremely popular these days and the article felt like it could have been written ten years ago when books on tape (or CD or MP3) were far less in vogue.

Why are audiobooks so popular? One reason (as the article points out) is that people are busy and listen to audiobooks while they're doing another task, such as driving or laundry. While this is true, I think the article neglected an important point: that the quality of audiobooks has markedly improved over the years. Audiobooks have gone from dry atonal readings to full scale productions which include music and multiple narrators. Many people are auditory learners and simply absorb things better by hearing than by reading. And of course, people who are blind or dsylexic listen to audiobooks. I don't think this diminishes the experience of the book at all.

My favorite audiobook narrator is Jim Dale (see this post). I think he's absolutely wonderful. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a particularly good audiobook and possibly the best of the whole series. As always, I think Jim Dale's narration enhanced the text and gave it an additional dimension.

I've recently been drawn in by Bruce Coville's company Full Cast Audio. As their name implies, Full Cast Audio has a different narrator for every character and I think this adds an incredible richness to each of their recordings. I had the pleasure of listening to their production of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn and it was just fantastic. I had thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it, but I really feel in love with it when I listened to it. Matt Cruse was read by teenage actor David Kelly and this helped me get a much better sense of this character than I have before. I also thought that Bill Molesky, who read Captain Walken, was right on the money with his wonderful magisterial interpretation.

To my delight, there is a new award for children's audiobooks sponsored by the American Library Association. The Odyssey Award is in its first year, and I can't wait to hear the winner and honor books announced in January 2008.


  1. Hmm. I'm an audiobook fan, mainly for driving or while running. Truth is, I have to do most of my reading in stolen moments on the subway, and so audiobooks let me squeeze in time for works I couldn't otherwise enjoy.

    In the best of cases, audiobooks add a performative component to the works. They can even get you "closer" to the author, when he or she narrates it personally. (Anthony Bourdain reading A COOK'S TOUR and Sarah Vowell reading ASSASSINATION VACATION are two of my favorites.) Sometimes, they frankly help me get through a book that would be a major project otherwise (JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was 35 hours, and was I think much easier listened to than read.)

    The only thing I turn my nose up at are abridgements, which do feel like cheating to me. Also, I have heard audiobooks with terrible narration, either too dry or overly dramatic, which soured a book that might have otherwise been quite good.

  2. I agree... abridgements really bother me and I avoid them at all costs. Ufortunately, some books don't have unabridged versions. I haven't been able to find an unabridged version of The Princess Bride. Also, I recently tried to find an audio version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which I thought would be perfect for a long road trip) and, alas, an unabridged version of this Pultizer Prize winning book does not exist.

    And yes, a bad narrator can make a huge difference.

  3. Thank you for your defense of audiobooks! When I first started working in libraries after grad school, I looked down my nose at audiobooks as a form of cheating. Why not just read the book? But Jim Dale and his readings of the Harry Potter books sold me on the format. Dale's readings are such a wonderful, rich experience, and they definitely enhance my experience with the books.

    I also want to echo what you said about the reader of an audio book making a difference. I recently went on a search for a quality, unabridged version of the "Anne Series" by LM Montgomery on audio and was very disappointed at the productions. One reader, Phoebe Moyer for Blackstone audio, pronounced Avonlea as "A-von-le-ah." (In the miniseries and tv show, both done before her reading was produced, it's pronounced "Avon-lee.") If she wasn't the only reader I could find for "Windy Poplars" and "Anne of Ingleside" I would definitely not have put up with her reading of the books! Thank you again for your defense of an important format!

    Other good readers: any of the HarperCollins audio versions of the Narnia series, Nathaniel Parker who reads the Artemis Fowl series, and pretty much anyone who is, or has been, a stage actor!

  4. Thank you, anonymous, for those great comments. I agree with you completely about the Anne of Green Gables audiobooks... I haven't been that happy with the narrator of that series either.

    And the Artemis Fowl series is great.
    I've found Jim Dale to be the point of conversion for many people to audio books (myself included!)

  5. As a Children's Librarian, I purchase as many audio books as possible and match them up with the print version. Reluctant or slower readers find the package invaluable in reaching class reading goals, improving speed and comprehension, and developing a love of good literature. Just started buying playaways (self-playing units) and all 70 checked out within 2 weeks. Quality is not a great, but they are the bomb when doing exercise or housework (yes, adults are hooked on our juvenile and young adult selections!)