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In praise of the oldest form of literature, oral storytelling — by which I mean audio books

July 12, 2010

Of the many excellent audio book readers, Will Patton ('Jesus' Son') gets my vote as the best

At a time when most of the focus in the literary world is on e-books, and whether they will completely supplant printed books and bookstores (and maybe eat the entire world), a piece in the Los Angeles Times reminds me how much I love audio books, and why you should, too.

When I first crept up on the subject of audio books, almost 25 years ago, they were still known generically as “book tapes.” As a lifelong reader and lover of books, I approached cautiously, skeptical that the spoken word could convey the pleasure and edification I derived from a bound volme.

Then it occurred to me that oral storytelling is the oldest form of literature — much of the Old Testament, Homer, Grimm’s fairy tales and other ancient literature originated as spoken word. Somehow this made it all right to give audio books a try. And like a crack addict, I was hooked on first exposure.

Right away I saw that a book, novel or nonfiction, read by a good reader (usually an actor, sometimes the author) had the same capacity to take me out of my quotidian existence as sitting down with the printed page. I could see the action in my mind, effortlessly visualize characters and settings, and find myself provoked by unbidden thoughts and associations.

The experience was so powerful that I decided if I listened to an unabridged audio book, I could in all honestly then say I had “read” that book. True, listening to an audio book is in some ways different from reading — translating the narrative into images and thoughts draws on different parts of the brain — but it is no better, no worse, a matter of aesthetic equality.

The fundamental reason to listen to an audio book is that it takes hours that might otherwise be idle or wasted — say, commuting alone in a car — and makes them useful and entertaining. When I lived first in Miami, then West Palm Beach, while commuting to work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I found I could double the number of books I read in a year.

Audio books has exposed me to a wealth of literature, of all kinds, that I probably would have gotten to in the usual way. This is especially true of a popular fiction — mysteries and thrillers — that I almost never pick up for my own pleasure reading. Some books I discovered this way: The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson; Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain; Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter; Vanished, by Joseph Finder; The High Window, by Raymond Chandler.

But it’s not all been bestsellers, noir masterpieces and potboilers. I found Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being this way (and I still think about it, 22 years later), as well as Peter Gay’s magisterial biography, Frued: A Life for Our Time. My first exposure to Harry Potter was under the spell of Jim Dale’s virtuoso reading of Sorcerer’s Stone (I read the remaining books in their printed versions in order to review them).

I could go on — and I think I will: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Burgess Shale; Jesus Son, by far Denis Johnson’s best book; Helen Hunt Jackson’s regional classic, Ramona; Georges du Maurier’s Trilby; Oleg Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit; Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (an all-time favorite); Mark Harris’s unsurpassed baseball novels (The Southpaw; Bang the Drum Slowly; It Looked Like Forever); Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains; Bernard de Voto’s one-volume abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark; Susanna Clarke’s brilliant adult fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

You get the idea. Audio books are a great way to enlarge your literary horizons. With that in mind, I think I will start reviewing audio titles here from time to time, say once a month. Meanwhile, please share your experiences with audio books. And if you happen to disapprove of them, please let us know why.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 1:07 pm

    Love ’em. They’re great for mindless cardio work, especially long runs. I do find that action/adventure, thrillers, and sci-fi make the best audio books. I’m strangely addicted to Orson Scott Card on audio (largely because of his narrator, Stefan Rudnicki). I think I would lose too much of the thoughtful reflection that Kundera inspires by audio, though I haven’t tried it. I can say that Russian classics do not make good audio books. I’ve tried to listen The Brothers Karamazov at least five times without ever getting even halfway through.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 12, 2010 10:06 pm

      I listened to Ender’s Game about 20 years ago — it was fun, although the climax challenged my willingness to suspend disbelief. I found Kundera plenty capable of inspiring thoughtful reflection by audio. The Brothers Karamazov, which I read the old-fashioned way, is tough going however you approach it.

  2. Tommy permalink
    July 12, 2010 1:12 pm

    Saturday evening I finished my first ever audio-book. I liked the experience. More than I thought I would. Having never tried to read by listening I was sure audio-books were dumb, and not for me. At first I could not stop giggling at the readers voices and had difficulty seeing anything in my mind’s eye other than someone sitting in a recording booth with a script in hand. After a time though, I was able to settle down and allow myself to be transported. I have yet to listen to any audio-books while driving or doing anything other than lying in bed. Today, I will take along a collection of short stories in audio form with me on my drive.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 12, 2010 10:08 pm

      Listening to audio books while driving is the absolute best in my opinion. I’ve taken 12-14-hour solo drives and listened to two, three books. I also like to take long walks with a good audio book.

  3. rachel permalink
    July 12, 2010 3:24 pm

    A fairly new convert, I can no longer imagnie my life without book tapes. It would be so lonely and sad and borrrrring!

    I think Will Patton should read every book. Every single one.

    Jesus’s Son is so incredibly wonderful that I am sure that it is wonderful on the page, but I don’t know…all I can say is that I’m grateful to have had it read to me by Will Patton. It was performed, it was told to me and I can’t imagine a better experience.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 12, 2010 10:10 pm

      You like Will Patton, too?! What a coincidence!

  4. Connie permalink
    July 12, 2010 6:22 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations; I’m always looking for the next audiobook. They make my commute so much better. BTW, the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell reader was fantastic; Simon Prebble, I think his name is. Recently I just listened to Mary Karr read her own memoir, Lit, and it made the experience even better than it would’ve been for me if I’d just read it myself.

    So many books I simply wouldn’t have made it to except on audio. For example, David McCullough’s John Adams, which I liked so much. Would I have ever sat down and read it myself? I doubt it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 12, 2010 10:15 pm

      Yeah I listened to John Adams, and also McCullough’s Harry Truman bio. Excellent, but at 1,000-plus pages I’d probably never have taken up the bound version. You know who is an excellent reader of his own work? Stephen King — even though he has a wet click in his voice. It’s amazing that it’s not disgusting. But it’s not. As I said, the industry’s full of excellent readers — Jim Dale does more than a hundred distinct voices for each Harry Potter book, for example.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 12, 2010 10:15 pm

    Oh, and everyone should listen to John Cleese’s reading of The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Who says Christians have no sense of humor?

  6. John Karwacki permalink
    July 13, 2010 7:37 am

    I think my first experience with audio books was listening to the “Big Book” read by Norman Lloyd. His voice was so convincing I kept coming back for more. When working at sea I would take two or three audio books for long watches as I could listen with one ear and still be aware of radios and alarms. I think my favorite was “A Prayer for Owen Meany”; don’t know who narrated but wow – it knocked me out. I too listened to Cleese’s “Screwtape”, you have to love it when Monty Python meets C. S. Lewis. It is so true that audio opens avenues otherwise restricted. Thanks for more choices, Chauncey. Oh, the places we will go.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 13, 2010 11:05 am

      You’re welcome, Captain. Glad to be of service.

  7. Connie permalink
    July 13, 2010 3:03 pm

    Oh, I’ve got to get my hands on Screwtape + Cleese. That sounds great. I also listened to McCullough’s 1776, which I believe he read himself, and it was pretty great too.

  8. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 14, 2010 2:31 pm

    Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She was my very first audio book. It was great to hear her read it in her distinct Texas drawl which would have been somewhat lost had I read the printed version.

  9. Gricel Rosado Cardona permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:40 pm

    Hello, if possible, can you please try and help me answer this question: What is the oldest literary form or What is the oldest literature form? I keep running into all different answer they might be some what alike, but still hard to figure out. Any help will be appreciated.

    Thank you.

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