Friday, November 7, 2014

Audiobooks vs. Print Books

It’s a commonplace notion that movies of great books never quite equal the texts they're based on. Maybe that’s because the author’s voice is such a crucial part of an excellent work of literature. The dialogue doesn’t really make up for losing the poetry of the narrative. How would you make a movie of To the Lighthouse, for instance, that could approach the wainscoted interior worlds of those characters?

On the other hand, not all audiobooks fall short in comparison to their hard copy cousins. I’ve been listening to a lot of recorded books this past year, since I now commute a little over 30 miles (50 kilometers) each way to my job. For me, some of the books gain as recordings. I’ve been thinking about which ones, and there seem to be some common denominators.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, read by Jay Long

Ernest J. Gaines
This extraordinary novel takes place in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s and concerns a young African American man who is wrongly convicted of first-degree murder. It’s a gripping story, and I got so caught up in the scenes that I found myself involuntarily reacting out loud to many passages, even though I’m alone in my car. That’s partly because the actor Jay Long has done extraordinary work creating the voices of many, many different characters, from the freethinking schoolteacher Grant Wiggins; to his Tante Lou, the tough and pious woman who raised Grant; to the narrator’s attractive and upstanding girlfriend; to the barely educated plantation farmhand who awaits execution; to the Southern sheriff with his ten-gallon hat. I’m sure this novel would be terrific anyway you heard or read it, but I think I would miss the varied and lively voices of Louisiana that are so much a part of the audiobook. I don’t know if I could have created those in my head if I’d read the book to myself.

A book where I actually had a chance to compare the audiobook and the print version was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel has six different narrators, played by six different actors in the audiobook: Scott BrickCassandra CampbellKim Mai GuestKirby HeyborneJohn Lee, and Richard Matthews. Since I had to return the audiobook to the library when someone recalled it, I read the rest of the book in the print version, and I regretted not hearing those narrators with their quirky verbal mannerisms.

The kind of book that I would not want to hear out loud would be a very densely written book with an intricate plot, a book where I want to keep looking back to events that occurred earlier to understand how they connect to later action. A book like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Or a book where the passages are so tightly woven that you want to read each one several times in order to taste every phrase again. An example might be Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.

I do really enjoy humorous audiobooks read by the authors, if those authors are fine comedians in their own right. I’ll list some favorites at the end.

But many books, especially books that use a distinct dialect or particular manner of speaking for the narrator, are probably just as good, if not better, as audiobooks. I always appreciate when an actor creates entirely distinct voices for each character in the book, and can bring to life personages with different ages and genders. Another advantage to audiobooks is that you can share them with others while you experience the book, and not just afterwards.

Here are several audiobooks I’ve enjoyed a great deal:

Humor
Wishful Drinking written and read by the late, great Carrie Fisher
Bossypants written and read by Tina Fey
Standing Up: A Comic’s Life written and read by Steve Martin

Novels
Jazz by Toni Morrison, read by Lynne Thigpen
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, read by David Horovitch
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, brilliantly read by Jeremy Irons
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Books on Tape
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, read by Robert Whitfield (incredible reading, he switches back and forth among so many voices!)
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle, read by Ger Ryan
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, read by Kimberly Farr

Nonfiction
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, read by Lisette Lecat
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou, read by Lynne Thigpen 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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