Friday, September 19, 2008


Slate has an article on audiobooks today. It starts out with this bit of information that I didn't know, about the increasing popularity of audiobooks:

Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.

I started listening to audiobooks hardcore about 7-8 years ago, when I lived in Dallas and had a 30-40 minute commute each way to and from work, and figured I'd give it a try. Now that's all I listen to when I'm in my car, and I figure I can normally read anywhere from 5-10 more books a year by listening to them.

The article gives an overview of the history of the industry, though I don't know how you can mention Scott Brick and not mention Frank Muller, who is probably the single most famous audiobook reader, having recorded over 200 books.

The article also points out the obvious, that the person who reads the audiobook generally makes or breaks it. This is why it's best for someone wading into audiobooks for the first time to check their local library or see if you can find samples online. Audiobooks are expensive (generally in the $50 price range), and it's a risky gamble if the reader turns out to suck.

The article praises the reading of the Pullman trilogy, though I wasn't that impressed. I thought the guy who read the part of the bear sounded brain-damaged, not bear-like. There are some interesting clips of celebrity readers, who have taken more to reading as the industry has become more popular.

Here's a hilarious clip of Brad Pitt butchering Spanish as he reads Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.

But there are some very good books read by some very good readers out there. Here are a few recommendations off the top of my head:

Einstein read by Edward Hermann
I finished this not too long ago, and though it's long, it was a great read

Anything read by Frank Muller.
I listened to a lot of Stephen King's stuff (e.g. the first four Dark Tower books) read by Muller, as well as Call of the Wild, 1984, and probably some things I can't remember now. I admit I thought he sounded a little hammy at first, but he grows on pretty fast.

Veteran British actor Roy Dotrice did an outstanding job with the first three volumes of George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Fire and Ice. Unfortunately, I think they were only ever released on cassette. Amazon's availability looks pretty poor. If they haven't, they really need to re-release these on CD or via download. Dotrice really brings these books to life.

William Hurt and Stephen King tag-team the reading of King's Hearts in Atlantis, and do a great job.

And I could have sworn at one time I had listened to an unabridged production of Carter Beats the Devil read by Stanley Tucci, although Amazon has a different reader for the unabridged version. Even if it was abridged, this one sticks out in my memory as one of the best read audiobooks I ever listened to, so it's worth it, even though I normally despise abridgments.

And if you think audiobooks are a weird or unnatural way to experience a story, just keep in mind that the oral tradition of storytelling has been the norm for thousands of years of human history. The phenomenon of storytellers writing their stories down, having them printed, and then read silently in isolation by their audience is a recent innovation, and is the exception in human history. Listening to books is a great way to read them, so you should give it a try if you haven't already.


Laurie said...

Aha! I knew that somewhere out there, there was objective evidence that Brad Pitt is an awful actor!

Anyway, a little over a year ago, at Derek's suggestion, I decided to try listening to an audiobook. I got extremely lucky when I picked out A Thousand Splendid Suns, read by Atossa Leoni. I followed it up with Middlesex, read by Kristoffer Tabori. I followed that one with Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, read by the author. All of these were fabulous books, and to this day audiobooks are my favorite way to experience a book...if the narrator is good.
Another good way to get/test audiobooks besides the library (which will probably have a limited selection - ours is full of Danielle Steel - blah) is through iTunes, which has a great selection, lets you preview them, and sometimes has some pretty good deals. Also, Audible has a decent selection and the ability to preview, and they have some decent membership plans that give you good deals on their books. The only downside is that you can't download them in .mp3 format, so you'll have to use quite a few CDs to get the whole thing burned.

I can't praise audiobooks enough. They've made long trips seem like a breeze, and they've made me feel that much more connected with the story and characters. I'll second Derek's suggestion to try them out if you haven't. Just don't get the abridged versions - they're a waste of the effort.

Derek James said...

I knew I'd leave out some good ones. Yeah, both A Thousand Splendid Suns and Khaled Hosseini's first book The Kite Runner were very good on audio (Hosseini was the reader for The Kite Runner, and he did a great job).

And Laurie says you can't download in MP3 format, but you can convert them, right? Then you can burn a whole book to a single CD, which is nice.

Kenny Wyland said...

Totally agree with Laurie about Audible. I was a big fan when I subscribed to the service and enjoyed many a book during my commute. They've fixed the whole problem with having to burn stacks of CDs because you can download for your iPod or other mp3 player.

byronfrombyron said...

Check out Neil Gaiman reading his stuff. he has 4 small story collections(1-2 discs), as well as reading Coraline and his Fragile Things collection. Few authors would dare do it, but he does it very well. Anytime I'm reading a Neil story now, I hear his voice in my head.

mark said...

I'm listening to the "Blue Ocean Strategy" audio book now. It's a fascinating approach to marketing and setting corporate strategy. However, who ever read it was quite poor. The frustrating about the book is they refer to a set of diagnostic charts that should be used to evaluate your current corporate strategy. Sometimes audio books aren't the best solution.

The harry potter books were well read.