Listening to a good book an unabashed joy

Bibliophiles bound up in their intractable disdain are missing a great read.

Observations

June 18, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

My name is Michael O., and I am an audiobooks addict.

If I am in my car, I am listening to a book on tape. If I am late getting home, it is probably because I am in the driveway catching the end of a chapter. If there is an extra 20 or 25 miles on the odometer at the end of a week, it's because I have gone on a expedition for no other purpose than to hear how a novel resolves itself.

I am hooked, and I have no intention of going into recovery.

I am not alone, of course. According to gushing press releases from the audiobooks industry -- especially now, during what's been declared "Audiobooks Month" -- listenership and sales continue to rise. There are actors who perform exclusively in the genre and stores that specialize in the medium. Public libraries are having to devote ever more shelf space to books on tape to keep up with patron demands. Audiobooks are here to stay.

Third person

Yet, still there are those with a fundamental antipathy to the audiobooks format. Among them is an exceedingly literate friend of mine who derides me whenever the subject comes up. He remains adamantly averse to the whole idea of experiencing a book through audiotape. It is a corruption of the whole process of reading, he insists, a diminishing of the experience.

By its very definition, my friend argues, an audiobook places another person between you and the novel. Instead of interpreting the writing for yourself, the book is now filtered through this foreign agent. Its meaning, its nuance, its tone -- all of it -- is now coming to you by way of this stranger who has assumed nearly as crucial a role in your enjoyment of the book at its author. Instead of allowing you -- challenging you -- to find your own meaning in the writing, the book is now delivered to you already translated by a third party, the performer.

My friend huffs that he has no wish or need for such an intermediary. I'm smart enough to read books myself, he says. The last thing I want is some actor manipulating me into what to think.

Upon reflection, I have decided that my friend is absolutely right. I have also decided that I don't really care.

I accept the bargain. I understand that when I listen to an audiobook, someone is coming between me and the book. That's why I make the decision that I will not read certain books in an audiobooks format, at least not the first time out. When Oscar Hijuelos, a favorite author of mine, has a new novel coming out, I make sure that's one that I read with my own eyes. Same goes for an Anne Tyler novel or Philip Roth. I don't want any interpreter but myself when I first read those writers.

But I assume most audiobooks listeners are like myself. The listening I do does not replace my conventional reading; it supplements it. I mostly listen in the car, so audiobooks give me a chance to do more reading than I otherwise would. Seen this way, narrators are the vehicles who enable me to read more.

The narrator contributes

But that makes narrators seem like necessary evils, and that's not at all fair to them. In truth, much of my enjoyment of audiobooks derives from the performances of the narrators. On many occasions, those readers enhance rather than detract from my appreciation of the book. Some, I am sure, have illuminated the books, have revealed what I might not have gleaned on my own.

For example, some time ago, I listened to Jack London's "Sea Wolf," read by Frank Muller, considered by many the Michael Jordan of narrators. Having read the book years before, I remembered it as a crackling adventure novel, but I had no recollection of London's writing as mischievous and sly. It was Muller's clever performance that opened my eyes -- or ears, I suppose -- to the whimsy in London's writing.

On countless other occasions, I have found that narrators have enriched my understanding of a book. In listening recently to John Banville's masterful spy novel, "The Untouchable," Bill Wallis' subtle and astute reading made evident the complexity of Banville's acidic, self-loathing protagonist. Similarly, Peter Francis James' evocative reading of Richard Wright's classic "Black Boy" gave the book a resonance and immediacy I'm not sure I would have perceived as a solitary reader.

Some readers choose a different approach, electing to duplicate the effect of leaving you on your own. Theirs is a minimalist approach. They provide neither interpretation nor characterization. They are, I assume, consciously endeavoring to deliver the book in its purest form.

But I suspect that most listeners are like me. They prefer those narrators who regard themselves as giving a performance. They provide distinctive characteristics -- based on the writer's clues -- to a variety of characters. They read with humor or foreboding or emotion. Yes, it's interpretive, but it's engaging too, like the performances in any memorable theater production or motion picture.

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