In Praise of Audio Books

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Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

I recall hearing Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series rebroadcast on CBC Radio in the late 1970s. As a result, I still have a greater fondness for that version than any other format because that’s how I was first introduced to it. Now I have some other stories to add to that list of preferred format.

Recently, I went through a personal experiment reading at bedtime the same chapters of the audio book  – Bleak House – I had been listening to earlier in the day. I was surprised at how different they seemed. In each, different parts of the sort, in fact even different words, stood out. In the book, I read in detail the descriptions and the long prose, but in the audio form, I listened more intently to the conversations – which in the printed form I sometimes raced through.

What that experiment showed me in very explicit terms was that when you listen, you hear different parts of the story and different words stand out than do when reading. I heard the story, felt a human relationship to the characters in a way that was not the same as when reading it. reading was, for me, more intellectualized, and I paid more attention to syntax and grammar when reading.

In part, of course, it has a lot to do with the reader. How you read is unique to each one of us, as is how you listen. I’m a bit scattered in that I always have on the go a dozen or so books, and seldom read more than a chapter at a time in any of them. It’s just the way I have grown up reading. Susan reads a single book from cover to cover. Neither way is better, just what suits the individual.

My way, however flighty and erratic it may seem, makes it easier for me to listen to an audio book a chapter at a time, even a few minutes at a time, and often go days between hearing it, yet still know where I was in the narrative the next time I hear another part. I listened to many excellent audio lectures from The Great Courses this way.

I also listened to the immensely entertaining History of England podcasts this way (a delightful series I wrote about back in late 2013).

Dr. Rose Brock wrote in an article for Random House that 85% of learning derives from listening and 30% of people are auditory learners. In the full article, Brock makes a case for a strong audio book collection in the library. A 2011 article in Forbes magazine also notes,

…reading and listening are strikingly similar cognitive processes. For example, 1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension – suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well, also. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.

Here are some of my recommendations for audio books that I’ve listened to in the last two years. I highly recommend you check out Librivox.org to discover some public domain readings that are, in my opinion, comparable with many commercial editions.

Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, read by Kristoffer Tabori. This is a magnificent reading that perfectly suits Finney’s style and the story itself. Of course it helps that I liked the movie (both its 1956 and ’78 versions are my favourites; I enjoyed the 1993 remake somewhat, but not the 2007 remake). I’ve never been able to find a copy of the book, although I’ve haunted used book stores in search of it. I’ve listened to this three times and could hear it again. This is a commercial product from Blackstone Audio.

Bleak House; Charles Dickens’ famous and lengthy novel, a Librivox production read by Mil Nicholson. A beautiful reading that captivated me for many enjoyable hours. Mil reads like a pro and she does the many characters superbly well. For Dickens, Bleak House was a literary experiment, switching between first and third person. It combines his usual social commentary as well as an engaging romantic tale.

Scaramouche. Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel is a “romance of the French Revolution.” It’s an adventure in the vein of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Tale of Two Cities, with escapes, disguises, sword-fighting, romance, class warfare and sometimes lengthy social and political expositions that are a bit dreary to read, but come across well enough in the spoken version. My print edition is the first Canadian publication, 1923, published by McLelland and Stewart. Sabatini wrote other adventures, including Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both of which were made into movies in the 1930s, starring Erroll Flynn. This is another Librivox production, well read by Gord Mackenzie.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: five Barsoom novels. The first five of Burroughs’ 11 Martian novels are on Librivox and they’re all worth hearing (and, of course, reading).  Despite more than a century since the first one came out, and Burroughs’ decidedly un-PC attitudes about women and race, they are still fun tales that hold up well today. Burroughs was a consummate story teller and I have all of his works in print editions and have read about 80% of them (his westerns and some modern stories never really grabbed me). Start listening to A Princess of Mars. There are some variant versions of several of the novels – choose which voice most appeals to you. I also recommend his Tarzan series – the first three or four are ripping stuff; after which the plots tend to be somewhat repetitive in places. I listened to his Pellucidar and Lost Continent novels from this collection, too, and liked them all. The only caveat is that some of the readers are not as good as others.

The House on the Borderland. William Hope Hodgson is almost unknown today aside from this 1908 novel; a bizarre, surreal horror story that the master, H.P. Lovecraft, enjoyed. I first read it when I was in high school, perhaps 50 years ago. It gave me a sense of grim foreboding and unease that I recall even now. Listening to it recently, I was impressed and entertained, but hardly scared. For fans of Lovecraft and his genre, however, it’s a must-read (or listen).

Vanity Fair. William Makepeace Thackery was a remarkably prolific author, which makes it bemusing that this single novel is the only one he’s really known for today. It’s a long, Dickensian-style story, but with more humour and wit than Dickens. This Librivox edition – the only Thackery in their collection – is read by several different people, which can be a bit disconcerting at times. Still, it’s worth sticking it out because it’s such an entertaining tale.

Twenty Years After. This is the sequel to Alexandre Dumas’s famous novel, The Three Musketeers. I read the new Pevear translation of the latter two or so years ago, and it was so entertaining that I wanted to read the sequel, but there isn’t a recent translation, so I went for the audio book and found it marvellous. I also read the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo this year and although I listened to a few chapters of one of the Librivox versions as well, I found the print version more satisfying.

Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s gothic story is quite different than the one we know and love starring Boris Karloff (which film I treasure in my movie collection). This is a Librivox reading of the 1831 edition, edited by Percy Bysshe Shelley and the most popular edition today. I never really liked the book – I preferred the Classic Comic in my early teens when I first tackled it – but the audio book makes its archaic style much more bearable, especially Victor’s seemingly endless, dreary monologues. It’s not a horror story, but rather a commentary on social mores, on religion, and on science wrapped in a fantastic tale.

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