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Hollywood star power coming to an audio book near you.

October 5, 2011

I always welcome a chance to run a picture of Kate Winslet. Wait -- did I say that out loud?

I’m not sure it’s good news for those of us who love audio books, but Internet-based audio publisher Audible.com has snared movie A-listers like Anne Hathaway, Samuel L. Jackson and Kate Winslet.

And they’re not going to be reading Go the F— to Sleep or the latest James Patterson thriller. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Dustin Hoffman will tackle Jerzy Koskinsky’s Being There, Annette Bening will read Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Naomi Watts will take on Summer, by Edith Wharton.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Those are serious literary titles, and I applaud Audible and the actors for taking the high road. Kate Winslet has already put time in the studio, recording the Emile Zola classic, Therese Raquin.

“You use a different part of your brain and it keeps your creative juices flowing,” Winslet said. “It is challenging, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun as well.”

Other actors announced: Anne Hathaway, The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum; Nicole Kidman, Woolfe’s To the Lighthouse; Kim Bassinger, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin; Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; Colin Firth, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair; Samuel L. Jackson, A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes; Meg Ryan, The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan; Susan Sarandon, Carson McCullers A Member of the Wedding.

All those books receive the Chauncey Seal of Approval, except for The Human Comedy. Saroyan was the literary equivalent of Norman Rockwell, but  his work hasn’t aged well. Beneath the rosy American archetypes the author’s cynicism glints through.

Still, a high school junior who arrived in September having reading that list of books would doubtless impress her English teacher. But would she receive the same credit if she listened to them?

Winslet makes the argument in favor of audio books:

“As a listener, being able to tune out and be taken into another world, an atmosphere, an environment that is being created entirely for you by somebody else’s voice is really a wonderful, magical thing,” she says.

And yet there’s the rub. I’ve been a devoted consumer of audio books for more than two decades — and that long experience has made me leery of actors doing the reading. Nothing ruins an audio book for me like a performer who tries too hard.

I mean, God, I hate “acting” in the movies, let alone in audio books — that is, acting that draws attention to itself. That’s why I can’t watch anything Anthony Hopkins is in.  I’ll never forget the way Tom Clancy’s A Clear and Present Danger was ruined for me by David Ogden Stiers and the self-conscious theatricality of his Russian accents.

Fortunately, most audio books are recorded by people you’ve never heard of. Three of the best I know of are Will Patton, Jim Dale, and Roy Dotrice — all relatively obscure character actors.

Patton, who can be seen as the resistance commander on the TV show Falling Skies, is perfect for anything set in the South or West. His reading of Denis Johnson’s addiction novella, Jesus’ Son, is a masterpiece of restrained artistry. Dale, of course, created dozens of vocal characterizations for the Harry Potter books, and Dotrice is in the process of doing the same thing for George R.R. Martin’s epic Game of Thrones fantasy.

What they all have in common is actorly restraint. Even when Dale or Dotrice creates the voice of a supernatural character, they never forget they are reading, not acting, thus leaving the listener room to bring his or her imagination into play. Or maybe they are acting with such skill I can’t detect it.

In any case, their reading does not detract from my enjoyment by drawing attention to itself. I hope the big cheese movie stars signing on with Audible will follow their lead.

In any case, maybe the pairing of star power with worthy titles will bring new readers to timeless literature. What? Oh, I always believed if you listen to an unabridged audio book, then you have the right to say you’ve “read” it. Nothing in 20 years of listening has changed my mind.

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