Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I don't like audiobooks. I never have. Reading, for me, is as much about the texture of the pages and the smell of the binding and the annotative margin scribbling as it is about the consumption of content. Listening passively to one person's interpretation of a text saps, for me, the individualized magic out of a book. What if I had imagined a character had a lower, or whinier, or more nasal voice? What if the inflections with which the narrator reads don't match up with how I had interpreted a passage? "Oh, I see" can become:
  • "Ohhh... I see..."
  • "OH, I see!"
  • "OhIsee".
And so on. But I am one of those unfortunate motion-sickness-plagued bibliophiles who torturously suffer through long car and bus rides without the alleviation of a book. So when I was younger I'd suffer, instead, through an audiobook or two, making a tradeoff between two types of suffocating boredom.

Many, however, greatly enjoy listening to audiobooks. My uncle likes to listen on his commute to work; my mom and her friends, who by virtue of living in the suburbs spend more time than average behind the wheel, aren't opposed to the idea either. And they may be onto something. In a March Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens writes,

"The concept of “books on tape” is entering a period of high attainment. Whatever may be said about “the decline of print,” about which I’ve been hearing glum predictions for dec­ades, a whole new world of bibliophilia is being created around us, not on paper but in the ether. Book clubs are formed in which members gather to listen. Internet reviews are circulating, comparing various readers of different classics. I recently had a conversation with a scholar of Henry James, who was gravely revolving the merits of David Case versus those of John Rowe as the best (or should I say most “sound”?) renderer of Marcel Proust. Fresh audio-literary stars are beginning to be born."
Hitchens's observance of the growing popularity of audiobooks doesn't encourage me to purchase one rather than its textual progenitor, but it does reassure me that wind exists yet in the sails of the traditional publishing world, albeit in an alternate form. I'd so much rather see audiobooks on shelves than vooks or blooks. Especially if they're performed by the authors themselves. And technology is (terrifyingly) moving in the direction of gauging accent and timbre and even sarcasm so that future interpretations of texts even by computers may be closer to what the author intended. The trouble, of course, is that writers sometimes do not wish for a singular translation unto their readers; as Hitchens quotes Emily Dickinson: "A Pen has so many inflections, and a Voice but one."

Despite his reluctant praise of Martin Jarvis's readings, Hitchens concludes, "To slide in a tape or a CD rather than cracking a hefty volume and making marginal notes? Mere hedonism!" Couldn't agree more.

1 comment: