Yesterday’s NPR story, Art Of Storytelling Alive And Well In Audio Books, prompted me to say to myself: Why didn’t I think of that?
I believe I’ve mentioned in this space previously that I’ve gotten hugely into audiobooks in the past couple of years for two reasons. One is that I’m a painfully slow reader, so reading books in print is sometimes frustrating for me. Imagine trying to get through graduate school with a snail’s-pace reading speed. The other reason is that “reading” via audiobook enables me to multitask. I can read while I’m cleaning the house or engaging in the many chores required when building a new house and maintaining a woodland farm.
The NPR piece makes the point that audiobook narration is a bit like oral storytelling, or at the very least, a partnership between a book’s author and its audiobook version’s narrator:
“When you think about history,” [author Wally] Lamb says, “Mr. Gutenberg came along and suddenly we had the book. But long before that, we had the oral traditions, we had storytellers sitting down and weaving a plot and presenting characters.”
That listening experience hasn’t really changed much for eons, [George] Guidall [the audiobook narrator who is the subject of the NPR piece] says. Think back to the cavemen who sat around the fire, listening to tales of the latest hunt.
“Now the cave is the SUV,” Guidall says. “[People are] listening to the books while the 18-wheelers go by. The parallel is still there. There is still the safety and the tribal nature of people listening to something being told to them.”
Guidall has no illusions about his own role. It is the writer who is the real storyteller. He is an actor; his role is to bring the words alive.
A good narrator can truly enhance the audiobook experience. I can recall only one book where less-than-stellar narration detracted from the experience. The reader of David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win spoke so slowly that I often got frustrated in listening.
Like good storytellers who can express various voices, accents, and emotions, some audiobook narrators are just outstanding. A few who’ve stood out for me: In one of my earliest audiobook experiences (back when I listened on cassettes!), Jeffrey Eugenides’ stunning Middlesex comprises dozens of characters, and narrator Kristoffer Tabori tackled them all beautifully, making each one distinctive and engaging. Simon Vance, who narrated all three books in Steig Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al) is marvelous and gives the reader/listener a feel for Swedish life (I believe he’s a Brit). I’ve loved the three narrators of Tana French’s engrossing tales of the Dublin Murder Squad: Tim Gerard Reynolds (Faithful Place), Heather O’Neill (The Likeness), and Steven Crossley (In the Woods).
Some other observations about audiobook narrators/storytellers:
Authors who read their own work
A few authors choose to read their own books for the audio version. Two that I especially liked because they conveyed the essence of the authors were Elizabeth Edwards reading her book Resilience and Mary Karr reading Lit. I liked Edwards’ calm, melancholy strength (this was before her snake of a husband owned up to fathering Rielle Hunter’s child; maybe Edwards would sound more angry now.) More recently, I listened to Donald Miller read his A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I got a good sense of Miller, but I wonder if someone else might have been a more lively reader. All three of these are in the memoir vein, so self-narration by the authors is certainly appropriate. I’m curious about why an author chooses to read or not read his or her own book.
Sometimes I like narrators because they sound the way I imagine the author would sound. In my mind, Scott Brick is Michael Pollan, Brick having narrated at least two of Pollan’s exposes of the Western diet and food system. Sandra Burr is Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars. Randye Kaye is Susan Isaacs (Past Perfect), one of my favorite authors, although the next book I’m planning to listen to is a Susan Isaacs novel (As Husbands Go) read by a different narrator. I’m interested to see if my brain will resist the other narrator because she doesn’t fit my picture of Isaacs’ voice.
Good audiobook narrators are equally adept at male and female voices. Another reason The Audacity to Win was probably my least favorite audiobook (not in terms of content but in terms of narration quality) was the reader’s laughable attempts at female voices. Anna Bentinck did a masterful job of depicting — with her voice and storytelling ability — both the male and female protagonists of David Nicholls’ excellent One Day. Christopher Welch did a similarly good job with a range of male and female characters in The Imperfectionists. It’s also interesting to see the gender choices audiobook producers make in selecting narrators. I’m currently “reading” River of Doubt, the rather testosterone-laden tale of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition to a tributary of the Amazon River after he lost this third-party bid for the presidency in 1912. The twist is that the book was written by a woman, Candice Millard, but the producers wisely chose a male narrator to convey the macho material. The flip side was the book I read before this one, One Thousand White Women. I’ve always been fascinated by men who write from a female point of view and in the voice of a female character (as well as female authors who do the same with male characters); author Jim Fergus inhabited the mind of his female protagonist in One Thousand White Women, but it would have been foolish for the audiobook narrator to have been male. Laura Hicks was the main narrator, although a male voice read a few smaller segments….
Casts of Narrators
… which brings me to a recent trend: Audiobooks read by casts of narrators. One of the most successful examples is Kathryn Stockett’s superb The Help, one of whose narrators did such a magnificent job that she has been cast in the movie version of this civil-rights story. Other books I’ve read and enjoyed that were enhanced by a cast of narrators are Girl Who Fell from the Sky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Bloodroot.
Some audiobook narrators are called upon to employ various accents, and most do so admirably. I missed Ted Kennedy’s Boston accent in his memoir, True Compass, nicely read by John Bedford Lloyd, but I’m sure the senator wasn’t really up to doing his own narration as he completed the memoir at the end of his life. Christina Moore did a nice job with multiple accents in Commencement, about four women who attend and then graduate from Smith College. I can’t recall ever hearing a recording of Teddy Roosevelt speaking (supposedly he sounded as though he’d inhaled helium), but I can’t help thinking River of Doubt narrator Paul Michael’s TR accent sounds like a cross between FDR and any of the Kennedy brothers.
It all makes sense to me now that my passion for storytelling fits right into my obsession with well-read audiobooks.
[Image credit: From the site of audiobook narrator Wayne June.]