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The guilty pleasure of audio books

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003
Long drives with someone who likes different music than you can be trying. The CD you picked comes on and you sing along happily to every tune, but then it finishes and his CD starts up, and you have to keep asking, "What is he saying?" and, "God, why is this song so boring?" Not good for marital harmony. Which is why, on a recent road trip to L.A., my husband and I listened to a book on tape (well, tapes). We don't really read the same books, either -- he favors nonfiction science and biographies, while I prefer contemporary fiction -- but we compromised on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the series' second title, read by British actor and Broadway star Jim Dale.

Now, let me state up front that I am not a Harry Potter fanatic. I read the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, after much prodding, and liked it fine, but hadn't been drawn to read any of the others. We'd both been curious about this reading (or "performance," as the case has it) because friends had raved about it. And Dale's work here really is a performance: He gives every character a distinctive voice -- from the hissing nasality of Professor Snape to the pathetic cockney-esque snap of Dobby the house-elf -- without resorting to squeaks for the girls and grumbles for the boys. (Dale won a Grammy in 2000 for his interpretation of the fourth book.) The only problem was when we arrived at our destination after finishing only half of the six tapes, and then had to wait the whole long weekend to hear the ending. It was Potterus interruptus.

So why did I feel guilty? By listening to the book rather than reading it, I suspected I'd taken the easy road. Perhaps audio books are a mildly shameful pursuit, like being into album-cover art as much as the music, or liking to shop; it seems superficial somehow, as if I just couldn't be bothered to sit down and read the damn thing. It should have been merely an issue of convenience. (I don't know about you, but I can't drive while reading.) Somehow, it wasn't.

June was National Audiobook Month. I'll bet you celebrated with a huge party and a lot of champagne, right? In my experience, books on tape and CD is not a common subject in the publishing industry or in the book-reading community, particularly in the Bay Area (the big New York publishers all have audio divisions). My only experience with the format during seven years in local publishing was when we were discussing the audio version of Griffin and Sabine, a popular epistolary novel, and Isabella Rossellini's name came up to narrate the female voice. (It was but a brief starfucker moment -- I'm not even sure whether we contacted her or if it was just wishful thinking -- but the role was eventually spoken by Marina Sirtis of TV's Star Trek: Nemesis.)

Truth is, it's a huge business: Annual sales estimates in the category range from $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion. Roughly one in five American households listened to an audio book within the last year, according to a survey released in May by the Audio Publishers Association, a nonprofit based in Virginia; some sources say recorded book sales are growing about five times faster than sales for print books. Yet among my book-reading friends, there's one who's a regular consumer (I can't even say "reader") of audio books. Another said, when asked why she would never listen to a novel on tape, "Because I can read a book with my eyeballs!"

Of course, for those who can't read a book with their eyeballs, audio books are a godsend. In a recent New Yorker article about blindness and the mind's eye, Oliver Sacks describes a woman who's been without sight for 30 years: "Listening to talking books, she added, made her eyes tire if she listened too long; she seemed to herself to be reading at such times, the sound of the spoken words being transformed to lines of print on a vividly visualized book in front of her. This involved a sort of cognitive exertion (similar perhaps to translating one language into another), and sooner or later this would give her an eye ache."

Chamber was the first book I'd listened to in ages -- having delayed for no good reason. Granted, I don't drive to work or carry a Walkman on the train, and in the mornings I listen to NPR for my news, so it's not like I have much opportunity. Plus, I remain disturbed by one of the first I ever heard, years ago: Stephen King's Thinner, narrated by Joe Mantegna, which I played while on a long drive alone. I had to sit in the car to listen to the end, and then I wanted to get the hell out and go be around other people. But some of the current offerings sound inspired: Tim Curry (of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) reading children's author Lemony Snicket? Hilary Swank reading Joyce Carol Oates? David Sedaris reading anything? And yet I resist.

Surprisingly, audio books are expensive. Most cost between 10 and 50 percent more in a listenable format than they do in hardcover. The new Harry Potter, for example, costs $30 hard-bound, but $45 on tape and $75 on CD; then again, it takes 27 hours to read all 896 pages out loud. (Incidentally, it sold 135,000 copies in its first three days, to make it "the fastest-selling title in the history of the recorded book medium," according to its publisher, Random House Audio.)

Audio books are neither fish nor fowl. Listening to one isn't quite reading -- it's less satisfying in some ways (you can't curl up with a tape) and more satisfying in others (you can do the dishes while playing it). It's not like other book-as-whatever experiences, either: Novels made into films are notoriously painful. (I recently watched the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary, and the part I enjoyed most was one of the DVD's special features -- a scrollable full-screen image of the original British columns that inspired the book, which are much snarkier and more clever than anything Hollywood could produce.) When I watch a picture made from a book, I'm often frustrated by the casting director's vision of these people I've imagined -- surely he doesn't think Possession's academic Maud Bailey looks like Gwyneth Paltrow? But when I read, I don't imagine the voices of the characters, so when I listen to an audio book, I'm not usually offended by the choice of narrator.

The fact remains that letting someone else read to me makes me feel like a kid. It's a little lazy, a little decadent; it allows me to do other stuff at the same time, which means I'm not focusing all my energy on the page -- or the words. It's not the tactile, visual experience of reading. But who am I kidding? It's probably just as intellectually stimulating. Maybe I just need to listen to one of the hot audio titles on Radical Self-Acceptance.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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