When I turned fifteen, the publishing industry gained two new products. The first was the QPB (Quality Paperback) and the other was the audio book. Following these inventions, the publishing industry ceased all further innovation and became as grim about fate as a Calvinist deathwatch beetle, only with less digging. This hunkering down includes the process of breaking new books and acts. These days putting a book out is done by any publisher with all the anxiousness of a grocery store bank clerk cashing a check; prospective authors please present two forms of ID.
Aside from recognizing that “quality paperback” has roughly the same meaning as “shoulder steak”, I was of no mind to deal with an “audio book.” Being read to had the ozone of infantilizism and/or the stuffy breeze of being a shut-in. Thank you no, I would do it for myself.
Push forward a few years (or decades, if you’re the kind of person who likes neat stacks) and I’m on the road, sick transit, speeding along a good ninety minutes a day, travelling to my place of underemployment. About a month ago, I was bitching about how I could be doing something profitable in that same space of time—like reading or heroin—and I had also mis-selected an audio book when ordering a book on-line. Amazing how all these sorts of things come neatly together, and thus render a gent into a “demographic.”
So now when I’m backing out of the carport, I am only glancing at the oncoming ruthless traffic of neighbors, or the passing blur of overaged basketball enthusiasts and their flailing ball. I am busy feeding 6 of 13 into the disc player.
Audio books are a new experience of literature, and the course is not necessarily smooth. All books I have ripped through previously, whether Plato’s Republic or Earl Thompson’s Tattoo or Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, have been securely narrated in the same voice—my own. It’s amazing how much Hemmingway and Poe sound alike, at least in their speaking voice, when mediated through a trained parrot. And if the writing be a bit opaque, one is free to reduce the pace, or make other aids towards digestion. But this is not the case with the audio book, where you are not on your own.
“The singer, not the song,” quoth Mick Jagger. True on a scratchy 45 and even moreso for the book on disc. The reader is all-important. The writer and listener are third persons in their own narrative.
Now you might think the best is to let the author narrate. Sometimes this works surprisingly well, especially if that author is marinated in media whoredom, already a familiar geek As Seen on TV. Who knew Gore Vidal was a dead-on mimic? Listening to him explode into JFK, Tennessee Williams, even Tricky Dick Nixon on Point to Point Navigation is a pleasure you would never get from sheer text, and helps mitigate the rather seconding-feel of the anecdotes after the brilliant Palimpsest. Christopher Hitchens has a nice chatty style on god is not great, although he needs to speak up. (“Louder!” cries the sixth row in sixth grade, really a bit of puffery on the part of the peanut gallery, who seek only to thieve some of the attention reserved for the speaker.)
However, a great many authors have a whiny, un-audio-hygienic speaking voice, which also coincidentally serves as their reading voice. This was passable on The Merv Griffin Show, but on disc 6 of 13? Dante, it turns out, did not enumerate all of the tortures of the damned. Can you imagine Truman Capote? …it’s not even funny to try…
I made it through all 12 of Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters. I could tell you that I found Blum’s record of the Society for Psychical Research exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—since she has gotten every mustard-spot-on-the-tie moment of the historical figures into her book. I could tell you I was at the same time a little disappointed, because there are questions maddeningly never asked and phenomena never discussed (so did anybody ever collect any “ectoplasm”?) But in the audio book world, poor Blum is reduced to irrelevant scriptwriter.
It’s all about George K Wilson. Who? The reader, of course. Wilson took a disc to warm up to. He has a template-perfect way of speaking—meaning that he talks like a machine, or perhaps more aptly, an Electronic Voice Phenomena. There is no drop-ping off gees in this spok-en world and the syl-lab-les are ov-er-en-hanced. On the other hand, Wilson throws out those Funny Voices with the adeptness of a medium. He does British accents, Australians, womenfolk lilt-talk, German kraut doctors, even dares a child’s voice (which comes off a little archly). He has “character voices” for each of the figures’ read correspondence, of which there is a lot. Even Mark Twain is in here.
You begin to appreciate what sort of work must go into this. I got warmed to old George, even if I am beginning to believe that all attempts at Mark Twain inevitably descend from Hal Holbrook. If there is an afterlife, I am assuming Mr. Holbrook will be called to account by Mr. Twain, at least on the matter of royalties if not on the heels of lese-majeste.
Speaking of Mark Twain, I just slipped in 1 of 13 on Roughing It today. I miss George K already. I was relieved to find that my latest narrator is not trying to be folksy or Holbrookian—a man’s got to know his limitations—but I can’t shake the feeling that this narrator has got somewhere else to be, and is sharing out eye-time between the text and his watch. He talks at such an overland pace, carriage racing along, that I know the mail must be delivered, but I can’t keep up. The breathless pace is being mistaken by me for suspense, and my blood pressure may be rising as he speaks.
I will give him at least an hour of my time (in which I suspect he will have packed three of his own), but I do wish there was a sort of Pandora out there for books on disc, snippets of narrators so that one could find out if the person reading to you is a person you would want to be read to by.
One of my neighbors dropped by earlier, a character filled with anecdotes of no particular gravity, but ones he insists on delivering out fully, and at full volume. I found myself thinking of him in audio book terms. I wished I could turn him down, or even off—but there are laws against that sort of thing.
My biggest problem with the audio book is my own inner life. I sometimes am looking at the Haunted Mansion set back from Route Sixteen, or at that perfectly round lake, or even daydreaming—and I find I have missed about three minutes of commentary. I often wander when reading a printed page—stop and have to go back over the text.
You cannot lazily wander back over the audio book. Capped in three minute tracks (typically) you might have to spend quite awhile in already noted territory, trying to get at that fifteen seconds of punchine Mato Grosso. So I mostly soldier on, knowing that in read-aloud literature, as in most spoken discourse, there are a lot of noddings, uh-hums, and faking interest and attention.