Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Read Me a Story

Sandra Parshall

I’m addicted to audiobooks. Unabridged, pleased, and preferably on CDs for superior sound quality. I check out half a dozen at a time from the library and go through them at a rapid clip. Without them, the number of books I “read” every year would drop by more than half. Many times I’ve purchased a book in print and ended up listening to it on audio from the library instead.

When I’m not at the computer or reading a printed book, I’m usually hooked up to an audiobook. I listen while I cook, while I fill the birdfeeders, while I pull weeds in the garden. One thing I never do is listen to a book while I’m driving. I’m afraid I’ll get too wrapped up in the story and will either have an accident or forget where I’m going. I’ll take a book on cassette tapes if that’s all that’s available, but I much prefer CDs, and I wish the library had more of the books I want available for download to my MP3 player.

Some people say they can’t become absorbed in audiobooks the way they sink into the print version. They need to see the words on the page. But for me the key to enjoyment of an audiobook – aside from the quality of the writing – is the reader’s voice. Anyone who listens to more than a few audiobooks has favorite narrators and tries to avoid those whose voices they find annoying for some reason. Companies like Books on Tape and Recorded Books, Inc., know this, and their web sites provide lists of books narrated by specific readers. The Recorded Books web site also has photos and bios of the narrators.

I’ll pass up an audiobook I want to listen to if it’s narrated by someone whose voice irritates me. I’ll try a recording I might otherwise pass over if one of my favorites is narrating it. Donada Peters has made me a fan of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin mysteries. I will listen to anything Davina Porter (right) reads in her lovely voice.

Some readers, though, please me with one author’s books but not with another. I think C.J. Crit is the perfect reader for Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott novels, but I don’t think she’s right for Janet Evanovich’s books. George Guidall (left) is probably the most experienced of all narrators, with more than 650 unabridged books to his credit, but I enjoy his deep, somewhat rough voice only on certain types of books. Oddly enough, his voice seems perfect for Lillian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” mysteries. He sounds like Qwilleran.

I come to associate a particular reader with a particular author, and I’m annoyed when a company gives the narrating duty to a variety of people. For example, the Recorded Books versions of James Lee Burke’s novels are read by Tom Stechschulte (pictured on the right), Mark Hammer, and Will Patton. I like all three of them, but it’s disconcerting to me to get a different voice each time.

Who are the men and women who record books? Some well-known actors have done recorded books, but the people who make a living at it are often the show business equivalent of mid-list authors -- talented, but not destined to become stars and earn a lot of money from acting. When they read a book, they play every part,
and their job is to bring out all of the story's emotional complexity -- truly perform it, not simply read it aloud. I’ve seldom listened to a recording that seemed poorly prepared or dashed off. My only complaint is the occasional mispronunciation. I still grit my teeth when I remember the narrator who repeatedly pronounced Quantico as Quan-TEE-co.

Recorded book narrators have their own awards to recognize professional achievement – the Audies, given in numerous categories. Veterans like Davina Porter and George Guidall have won multiple Audies. Publishers Weekly has a review section devoted to recorded books, with the emphasis on the reader’s performance of the material.

As usual, I have a bunch of unabridged audiobooks in my to-be-listened-to stack, among them Angel’s Tip by Alafair Burke, read by Eliza Foss, and China Trade by S.J. Rozan, read by Christine Marshall. I just finished listening to The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon, read by David Colacci, and now I’m listening to Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon, read by Jeff Woodman. I’m waiting my turn on the library’s reserve list for recordings of new books by John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Greg Iles, Jeffery Deaver, Stieg Larsson, and Kathryn Stockett.

And what am I actually reading, as in holding a printed book and moving my eyes over the words on the pages? Undone by Karin Slaughter. I will finish a couple of audiobooks in the time it takes me to read Undone.

Do you listen to recorded books? Do you have favorite narrators?


Bernadette in Australia said...

I'm fairly new to audio books but I love them too. My library doesn't have that many books that I want to read so I have joined for a book every month. I would love to get 2 or 3 but can't quite afford that. One of my favourite recent audio 'reads' was Reginald Hill's A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES which was brilliantly narrated by Jonathan Keeble. I've also loved Tom Rob Smith's CHILD 44 narrated by Steven Pacey and THE SALADIN MURDERS by Matt Rees narrated by Daniel Philpott. I'm currently listening to Christie's DEATH ON THE NILE narrated by David Suchet - it's terrific.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I haven't had time lately, but I do love audio books.

As a side note, audio books helped my children become better readers--recorded books like the "Harry Potter series" made reading exciting. I made sure they were following along with the printed version, which helped them learn new vocabulary.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

I know various people who enjoy listening to audio books while driving. But that scares me--I get so busy visualizing a football game on the radio that I don't pay attention to the road. Not good. I'm sure it would be worse trying to form mental images of an entire story.

And the voice is so important! I often joke that I would listen to Liam Neeson read the phone book. Or maybe Patrick Stewart. Is there any site where you can sample voices before you buy?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've never listened to an audio book--in the car, I sing along with country music, and at home, I usually prefer silence--but I've been reading Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full, the mystery in which the detectives are a flock of sheep--at the beach, slowly, in installments, because it's a book to savor, and I think it would make a great audio read. Does anyone know if it's available?

Janet said...

I love listening to books on my iPod while walking. I'm listening to THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE right now. I like listening to books I've already read at times. I find that I notice things on listening that I didn't when I was reading. It has also increased the length on my walks - a lot.

Gink said...

I've only ever listened to audiobooks in the car!! This was back when I used to drive to work and I wanted something to keep me alert in the early morning and entertained on the way home. I always chose humorous books, those written by comedians or humorists. I've never actually listened to a fiction book on CD, but what you said about the many who does the "Cat Who" books makes me want to listen to a few of those.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, yes, Three Bags Full is available on audio. Check the NYC library's catalog. Such a large library system probably has it.

Sheila, companies like Recorded Books and Books on Tape have audio samples on their web sites. The voice is crucial to me. I've given up on recordings during the first tape or CD because I couldn't stand the reader's voice.

Our county's library system has a big stock of audiobooks, largely thanks to a man who died some years ago and left a huge endowment to be used solely for purchase of audiobooks. He had gone blind in the last years of his life and had depended on audios for his "reading".

Anonymous said...

I caught this via a tweet. So glad you enjoy our audiobooks!

You might be interested in the Recorded Books K-12 blog ( and the RB Direct blog ( We often have giveaways and post about the inner workings of audiobooks, including out extensive research process (I hope it wasn't an RB book that said "quan-TEE-co!).

Anonymous said...

I also must add - kudos to Elizabeth Spann Craig on using audiobooks for her struggling readers! Listening to the audio while following along with the print is the strategy we recommend. Good job! :)

Katie said...

I'm obsessed with audiobooks, too! I work at AudioFile Magazine, which reviews audiobooks for exactly the reasons you touch on here—a bad narrator can ruin a book, but a great reader can take it to a whole new level!

Feel free to check out our site and read our reviews!

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Ah audiobooks!
The only way I could finally read Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books was via audio. The Brit humor just sparkled.
For some reason I have the most difficult time making my final selections with or my library downloads. It is such a comittment, I guess. :)
The wrong voice can definitely make a normally good read unlistenable.

The Cat Bastet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Cat Bastet said...

I love audio books! I listen while working around the house, to fall asleep at night, and while driving. (I have no trouble focusing on the road but sometimes have to rewind the book a bit.)

My favorite readers are George Guidall (especially the Cat Who books), Jim Dale, John Rubinstein (who read Jonthan Kellerman's books) and Barbara Rosenblat (who read Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books). I'm also love to listen to Ray Bradbury read his own books (Fantastic Tales of Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, etc.)