Monday, June 23, 2014

Print versus audiobooks: why are audio versions sometimes best?

I was reading a discussion over on Goodreads, and several commentors remarked that they hadn't liked "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, because it is written in present tense. I could understand the objection: unless handled extremely well, a strong and unusual stylistic choice -- like present tense -- can come across as affected and annoying. "Wolf Hall" is not just delivered in present tense, it's written in a very limited third person point of view -- as if Cromwell were wearing Google glass with a connection to his brain. The effect is reminiscent of those annoying people who constantly refer to themselves in third person (e.g. "Bob Dole likes ice cream," said Bob Dole).

Nonetheless, in the case of "Wolf Hall" I thought the author used the extreme style with great skill. After the initial shock of starting a historical novel not written in the usual simple past and first or third person, I was pulled into her control and forgot about anything but the story and characters. Hilary Mantel made Tudor times my present; she took me by the hand and led me to eavesdropping with her, just over Cromwell's shoulder -- or seeing his view through that Google glass.

Hampton Court Palace
 And then it dawned on me why the book had worked so particularly well for me: I never actually "read" it all.  I listened to the audible audio version, and experienced it as if it were a documentary.

Most of the time I pick up books in audio because I have a monthly credit at audible, and it's cost effective to use it for new books I want to read but don't want to pay hard-cover, new-book prices for. That was the case for "Wolf Hall," but now I'm thinking I should analyze my experiences to make my choices even more strategically. The more I think about it, the more I'm coming to understand that audio is a better format for some books.

Sometimes, like a Shakespeare play or epic poetry, a work needs to be performed. The human voice adds something that can't quite come across in silence.

Another example of a book I thought worked particularly well in audio form is "World War Z" (forget about the movie, the book is completely different). This tale of a world-wide catastrophe is told as a Studs Terkel-style compilation of interviews with survivors. Each individual story provides a unique puzzle piece, which combines with all the others to tell a complete story from beginning to end.  "World War Z" is probably a good print or e-book read as well, but it really shines with hearing the literal voices of interviewee's memoirs.

Last but not least, I'm not sure I should admit that I've never particularly enjoyed reading the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I first read it many years ago, with a bit of struggle, but I did get though it (feeling guilty for not enjoying it more). After experiencing the beautiful films, I wanted to give the books another go. Once again, I got bogged down in the epic style, skipped over all the songs, and ended up dropping the plan in favor of reading something else instead.

A special offer on the audio books inspired me to give them a try, and it was a revelation. I recommend the original audio version, narrated by Rob Inglis. They are unabridged, which alone is a good reason to go for this version. He has all the voices perfectly, and actually sings the songs, which turns out to be important. I had always found them old-fashioned annoyances to skip before, but in fact they contain a lot of information important to the tale.

If you've never tried an audiobook before, any of these three would make a good place to start.

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