I grew up in a world where stories were read aloud. My mother read to me. My father and grandparents invented stories, mostly about animals, which they would tell me at bedtime. Some of my earliest memories are listening to stories on the radio as a boy in England. I had a record of Beatrice Lillie reading the poems of Edward Lear that I played until it was one long scratch. I read aloud whenever I could. I would read to my sisters if they would sit still long enough. I still remember being played the original 1954 Under Milk Wood in English class, and rejoicing in the words and the lilt of the voices. I didn’t rediscover spoken-word stories until I was a parent. I would read to my children, and began to supplement that with cassette audiobooks. They made car journeys pass faster, more interestingly. And you knew you had a good one when nobody wanted to get out of the car at the end of the journey. I began to buy, or rent, classics and new books and old favorites. A drive from Florida to Minneapolis became Stephen King reading his book Bag of Bones; a journey from Wisconsin to New York was Tom Parker reading an unabridged Huckleberry Finn. I realized I was experiencing the stories differently, word by word. Listening. I was overjoyed the first time one of my publishers let me record one of my own audiobooks, though I was slightly saddened when she explained that there would soon be no more audiobooks: Cassette tape players were vanishing from cars, and packaging long books on CD was cost-prohibitive. The audiobook was going to go the way of the dodo. I began to treasure audiobooks as beautiful things that would soon be history. But the death of the audiobook never happened. In the past six years, I’ve recorded six audiobooks, and although it can be exhausting, I’ve loved the process and have been delighted with the result.
Author David Sedaris is someone else who records his own audiobooks, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his NPR pieces. When I decided to investigate the world of audiobooks, I started with David.
“I often believe that no one could appreciate the iPod more than me. I think that it was invented especially for me,” David said. “I would fight for my iPod. Like, I wouldn’t fight for my freedom, but I would fight for my iPod.” But audiobooks can vary wildly. The person reading makes all the difference. “Sometimes you get an audiobook, and you realize too late that it’s just the wrong reader,” David said. “Like, I hate it when a guy is reading a book and he’ll say, ‘There was a knock on the door. It was Rebecca. Well, it was about time, she said,’ ” David now using a narrator’s high-pitched voice.There are pitfalls you really only discover when you’re reading aloud. Inadvertent tongue twisters or clumsy sentences that make you curse the author, which for me, is me. So I’ll sometimes rewrite sentences prior to publication.
Of course, there are those who don’t like audiobooks. Critic Harold Bloom said, “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” So is an audiobook a book? I asked audio producer Rick Harris. “Well, my feeling is that it is not a book,” he said. “An audiobook is a separate entity that is absolutely true. And a novel can be seen as many things, and one of the things it can be seen as is a script for an audio performance.””[Bloom is] utterly correct in saying it’s not a book, but it is another thing,” Harris said. “It is an audiobook, and that has its own validity, its own limitations, its own strengths. The ear’s ability to perceive nuance. The human voice is unquestionably the most expressive musical instrument there is. You combine those two, and you get an audiobook.An audiobook is its own thing, a unique medium that goes in through the ear, sometimes leaving you sitting in the driveway to find out how the story is going to end.