Sunday, September 26, 2010

Audio Book Round-up

sassafras leaf

This is a little more personal than my usual posts, but I'll proceed because it still relates to technology and libraries. Also, I wrote about something similar last year and have been keeping track of the titles I've listened to since then. (I'm still on the look-out for recommendations!) Currently I'm in the middle of The Hemingses of Monticello, which is consistent with what I've come to appreciate: histories, biographies, literary or historical fiction (particularly travel or journey-related), and most non-fiction except for self-help. I haven't really enjoyed mysteries, because, wimpy me, I don't like the additional stress in the mornings.

So here's a selection of what I tried over the past year:

* Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble
Prebble (who earlier this year won an award for his work) was truly excellent -- the voices, inflections, pacing, and accents were brilliantly done. Even the footnotes were made vastly more entertaining than they might have been otherwise.

* Checklist Manifesto - Atul Gawande, read by John Bedford Lloyd
Most of the credit should probably go to Gawande's writing, but the audio was very well done.

A lot of time and energy goes into audio books, and I hate to be a jerk critic. In all cases below except one (Larsson), my dislike of the audio book was based largely on the narrator's reading.

* The Wordy Shipmates - Sarah Vowell, read by the author

* Straight Man - Richard Russo, read by Sam Freed
(Interestingly, I read this in printed format during the summer & really enjoyed it. So this is nothing against Russo here.)

* The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery, read by Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris

* The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson read by Simon Vance
The latter, I want to make clear, was not the problem. Simon Vance was doing wonderfully when I quit listening. Lots of people seem to love this book and the series, but apparently I do not. As I didn't make it through the entire work, I couldn't bring myself to list it with the WELL PRODUCED (recommended) titles below, but in all fairness it probably belongs there.

WELL PRODUCED (recommended)
* The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls, read by Julia Gibson

* The Alchemist - Paul Coelho, read by Jeremy Irons

* Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel, read by Simon Slater

* Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo, read by Arthur Morey

* The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt, read by Rosalyn Landor

* The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz, read by Jonathan Davis

* Family Album - Penelope Lively, read by Josephine Bailey

* The Help - Kathryn Stockett, read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell

* The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett read by John Lee

* The Education of Henry Adams - by Henry Adams read by David Colacci
This title has been on my 'to read' list for years, and I agree with everyone who calls it an Important Book. It's particularly so for someone who works in higher education and spends vast quantities of time thinking about epistemology, as I do. Having said that, the audio definitely helped me get through it. Although Adams writes with a certain dry humor, I occasionally found my mind wandering. Colacci, who if he read another book in the same tone I might accuse of over-acting, lends life and music (not literally) to Adams's often long and winding sentences; he parses them clearly while moving at a good clip. In addition, this is one of the few audio titles I might benefit from owning and listening to repeatedly, as there is so much to think about contained in it.

A few related notes on audio books in general:

-When the person reading the book out loud is an actor, and he makes up his own rhythm rather than trying to follow the author's writing, the results are typically horrible. I notice it often happens with American male narrators.

-With a number of titles above, listening to the audio book inspired me to buy the printed book, either as a gift or for myself. This supports the idea that both audio books and public libraries support the publishing business.

-I tried a subscription to audible, and the experience was mixed. It took three tries before I was completely happy with an audio book I downloaded. (The sound quality on an older book was dreadful; another one I tried and didn't like, so I felt like I had wasted my credit.) And although the convenience is a plus, I'm not sure the subscription model works well for me. Even with the amount of driving I do, there are just not that many audio books that I want to own or listen to repeatedly. As is reflected in this post, three per year would be more than sufficient, but the current subscription packages seem to have 12 as the minimum (1 per month). The breadth of audible's holdings is getting better all the time, and if you want a recently-published title to download instantly, there's no competition. In view of the preferences I describe above, however, I might not be their ideal customer.


  1. Another librarian with a long commute :) I'm new so currently NPR is getting me through but I'm sure I'll start on audio books soon.

    When I saw you liked "literary or historical fiction (particularly travel or journey-related) I immediately thought of Connie Willis and the _Doomsday Book_ not sure of the quality of the audiobook but her books are quite good. A patron once asked for this book only knowing the color and a few descriptors--we eventually found the book and I was so intrigued I had to read it as well.