Friday, December 7, 2018

Stories in the Air: The Dorky Charm of Audiobooks by August Thomas


If you’re, say, Raisa Jordan or Emma Caldridge, your daily life might be packed with thrilling adventure.  But for the rest of us, the average day involves a certain percentage of less-than-fascinating chores and obligations.  Tidying up.  A long commute.  Sometimes, Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background is enough to take the edge off the boredom.  But for the truly story-addicted, is there anything better than an audiobook?
(Most things are sweeter with a little Ella Fitzgerald!)

My own audiobook habit began as a child.  When, on occasion, I could no longer put off tidying my bedroom, a peculiar collection of audiocassettes kept me company: ancient Egyptian mythology, a Cabbage Patch Kids singing story tape that should be banned by the Geneva Convention, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  Dozens of times, I listened to travel grouch Paul Theroux griping his way around the shores of the Mediterranean, teaching eleven-year-old me mysterious new vocabulary words like “priapic” and “Albania”.
At their best, audiobooks can almost simulate the experience of imagination itself, without the pesky hard work that making up your own story actually involves.  The words, the pictures, the story…they materialize fully formed, like magic, in your head, without the intrusion of page or screen.  And if you find yourself sitting rapt on the floor 45 minutes later, closet still un-organized…surely that is a small price to pay? 


Years later, after my grandmother died, my mother and I spent many weekends commuting three hours each way to clean up Grandma’s house and take care of all the endless paperwork and admin that goes along with a 21st-century death.  A laugh riot it was not.  But audiobooks saved the day.  The longer, the better!  We had over six hours of driving to fill.  We listened to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the ultimate nightmare tale of post-death legal wrangling.  We listened to Anthony Trollope.  I found myself finding excuses to stay in the car longer, to finish a chapter.  As many people have observed, 19th-century popular fiction is especially wonderful read aloud, because that’s how it was meant to be enjoyed. In World Literature Today, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming writes,

"Dickens habitually read his work to a domestic audience or friends. In his later years he also read to a broader public crowd, first for charity purposes, then as a second profession. Episodes of reading aloud also abound in Dickens’s own literary works. More importantly, he took into consideration the Victorian practice when composing his prose, so much so that his writing is meant to be heard, not only read on the page."

(The original “audiobook”?)

As a writer, I’ve come to appreciate audiobooks in a new light.  Listening to a book read aloud instantly clarifies what is essential and what is not.  When your eyes cannot skim, there is no hiding from description that should’ve been trimmed, or dialogue so canned it should be checked for botulism.  Does the plot hold up clearly, when you can’t easily flip a few pages back to check?   Listening to excerpts of the audiobook of my first novel, Liar’s Candle, was like an out-of-body experience.  It wasn’t an adaptation – the words were still all mine – and yet, in another voice, with the added inflection of the actress’s performance, they took on a life entirely apart from me.   

In times of stress, audiobooks can offer distraction and companionship, even if you’re too rattled to sit down and read.  Jonathan Cecil’s perfectly plummy readings of P.G. Wodehouse  make the ideal tonic for a bad day.  One my all-time favorite reading memories is of a rainy, cold February night in Amsterdam.  My mother was lying in our tiny hotel room with walloping pneumonia.  There was no TV.  We couldn't go anywhere.  She was too sick to read.  But I had Auntie Mame on my Kindle.  And as I read it aloud, we laughed and laughed.  

How do you feel about audiobooks?  Do you have a favorite?  Have you ever read a whole (grown-up length) book aloud? 

6 comments:

  1. What a wonderful personal history with audio books, August. I'm grateful for them, too, for many reasons, but perhaps most important to me is that I can enjoy far more books because of them. Now it's not just Read On, it's Listen On! Thanks for the memories.

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  2. I Love audio books - and always have one in the car (while I "read" books on my exercise bike and at night). Your great post got me thinking about some of the best narrators I have heard -- I'll pull a list together for my next blog. Thanks for this history, August - appreciate it.

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  3. Great idea to "read" them on the exercise bike, Karna - and I'll look forward to the list. And yes, Gayle, it's such a delightful way to get to enjoy more books! :)

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  4. My mother told me it was always best to read whatever I'd written aloud. Better to catch any errors, or hear the missteps along the way. Good advice. As for audiobooks, I'm afraid I don't get to listen to many. But hearing the wonderful ways to use them while doing something else, I may have to rethink that! I might actually look forward to my exercise or cleaning!

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  5. This is how I do practically all of my research for a new book--audiobooks! And if I can only find something as ebook, my phone can read it to me.

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  6. Wes and I use audio books when we make the 9 hour commute to visit our son and daughter-in-law in KC, on long road trips, etc. There has been more than once when we've pulled to curb on the block before our destination to listen to the last 10 minutes of a good novel.

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