On readers of audiobooks

I read a lot of books as audiobooks. There is an inherent danger, for want of a better word, in that, because it is all but impossible to find a reader whose tones and inflections permit you to interpret the words and phrases of the author and appreciate his or her prose style in the way that you would if you were reading silently to yourself.

I recall listening to a Jason Bourne audiobook read by Darren McGavin, and it was one of the most repulsive reading experiences I’ve had, aside of course from Atlas Shrugged, which is a singular  intellectual agony deserving of its own full airing at some point.  I can’t recall which Bourne book it was, either the first or the second, and I was struck, first, by what a disappointingly bad book it was. Clearly, the producer, writers and directors of the movies had made wonderful choices in completely reshaping Ludlum’s plot and developing richer, deeper characters. But the whole thing was made even worse by McGavin’s over-the-top efforts to dramatize a spy story that, for all its many flaws of silliness, needed no help in the drama department. I found myself frequently laughing at entirely inappropriate points in the narrative solely because of McGavin’s melodramatic tone. Sometime later, I listened to another Bourne book, this one by one of the post-Ludlum writers who have taken up the franchise, and I found it quite engaging.  Not only was it a more layered and interesting story, but the reader, whose name I don’t recall, let the story tell itself.

I’m thinking a lot about such things now because I’ve had three emphatic experiences with audiobooks recently wherein the talents of the reader had a distinct impact on how I related to the book.  I’ll start with Scott Brick.  I’ve listened to numerous novels and histories for which Brick was the reader, and at first, I think I found him only mildly annoying.  I’m not sure his style affected my assessment of the book itself.  He was the reader for Devil in the White City, for instance, and I recall thinking he was a bit annoying but the nature of Erik Larson’s story and the depth of his research was such that it easily overcame any distractions of the reader. Even so, I was never as enamored with White City as others seemed to be, and I found In the Garden of Beasts, which I read conventionally in the hard cover, to be a very so-so experience. Somewhat interesting story, clearly well researched, but nothing to really captivate you.  Then, a couple of months ago, I listened to Scott Brick’s reading of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lucitania, and I have to say it was almost all I could do to finish the book. The text is pretty interesting, and Larson provides a moderately good narrative of the Lucitania’s voyage and sinking, along with decent insights into the people aboard at the time. But it was never sufficient to truly draw me into the story he was telling and Brick’s overdone performance completely distracted me from the narrative. I remember thinking, “This is a really amazing story. How could anyone screw it up so badly?”  The first fault in that assessment, I determined, was Larson’s, but it was seriously exacerbated by Brick. Had I listened to Brick read  Beasts, I suspect I never would have even ventured into Dead Wake.

I had a similar reaction to an audiobook I just finished titled  Compulsion by Allison Brennan.  It was read by Eliza Foss.  As I listened, I came to realize that Foss also was the narrator for another book I read last year or the year before, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.  For the Downton Abbey book, I forgave Foss’s sugary intonations because they were pretty much attuned to the saccharine nature of this book. But I was amazed to find that Foss read Compulsion with almost the same gleeful toothpaste-commercial sap that she brought to Watching Downton Abbey. The book itself was intensely mediocre and Foss’s reading only emphasized its lack of seriousness.

Now turn with me to The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, narrated by Edward Herrman. Ah, such sweet relief. I’ve read several histories narrated by Herrman, and they are such a pleasure.  He manages very cunningly to place inflection and pathos into the text, but in such a subtle, natural way that you are always able to focus on the text and the narrative.  Your attention is never called to the reader.  I am enjoying this book immensely and learning a great deal from it.  Much of that, of course, is due to Goodwin’s skills as a writer.  But I am so thankful that when it came time to have someone give a voice to the work on audiobook, it was a person with Herrman’s subtle genius.

Audiobooks are a great help to me in permitting me to enjoy reading and the peculiarly engaging experience it provides. I am always thankful when I find one where my own head is not competing with the intonations and melodramatics of the reader.