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Audio Books

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me. Anything can happen child. Anything can be.” Some believe Shel Silverstein’s excellent advice extends to listening to books, but others vehemently disagree. Over the years of commuting 15 miles to work, I found that I can complete an average-sized audio book in about a week, but is it the same as reading it visually?

“Is Listening to Audio books Really the Same as Reading?,” a articles by Olga Khazan, reports that “literature buffs both gush (‘I love audio books for the times when I have brain power available but can’t hold a book’) and disparage the practice (‘I can’t really listen to audio books. I don’t think I retain as much that way, plus I get distracted with other things.’).” Khazan answers the “is listening as good” question with “[p]retty much, but it depends on the type of book” and cites studies that “found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension, suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well, also.”

Most of us enjoy hearing a story, and some can immerse themselves in a recorded book while driving or doing household chores, but many strong readers find audio books annoying. When these individuals are in book clubs, they tend towards the “listening is cheating” side of the debate among bookclubbers. “Cheating who?” one online forum participant asked. “I didn’t know I was competing with anybody but myself.”

Include me in the “it’s all good” middle-ground on this one, experiencing wonderful books audibly that I’d never found time for on my burgeoning must-read list. The autobiography of Giacomo Casanova, for example, was composed in the 18th century, and the lover-librarian’s use of language reflects his era. His tales of, ahem, daring-do, including starting the world’s first government-sponsored lottery, are absolutely engrossing. I also enjoy “re-reading” books by hearing them. It’s a very different experience that enables the re-enjoyment of books. Currently, I’m listening to book sixteen of Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous historical fictions series despite reading the 7,000-page saga numerous times, but when it’s truly great literature, fascinating new aspects emerge with each exposure.

O’Brian’s known for his strange and amusing allusions and word-play, but he tells such a rousing yarn that many of them pass by unnoticed on the first, or even sixth, reading. For example, there’s O’Brian’s passing reference in “H.M.S. Surprise” to Jeremy Bentham’s whipping machine, a real device for punishment that used an algorithm that determined how much pleasure was derived from doing bad, and the necessary amount of pain to counter it.

Audio books come to life when narrated well. For example, Patrick Tull, O’Brian’s principal narrator, expertly employed a variety of dramatic techniques to the novels. Jonathan Cecil’s bouncy delivery does the same for P.G. Wodehouse, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana-based “Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency” books are made more cogent by narrator Lisette Lecate, a South African adept at African accents and pronunciations.

Some authors, like John LeCarre, Bill Bryson, and David Sedaris, are captivating readers of their own works, but many others stink. My career in libraries mirrors the rise of audio books from LPs to MP3s, when the first prolific publisher, Caedmon Records, was issuing tapes of authors reading their books on new-fangled audiocassettes. Dylan Thomas, Steinbeck, and Sandberg were wonderful readers, just what their fans would expect. However, Papa Hemingway, whose entire oeuvre I consumed greedily as a youngster, was awful with his drunkenly slurred, high-pitched voice that belied his tight prose and manly posturing.

I bought them for the first library I ran, and our library owns Hemingway’s books on cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and online downloads from the Listen Alaska-Plus collection, despite his being a first-class jerk and bully who read to sneer and compare rather than simply enjoy. Nowadays I desire more congenial literary companionship, like Wodehouse, Silverstein, Bryson, and O’Brian, and adore hearing Patrick Tull read in his garrulous seaman’s voice absolutely dripping with seawater from “Wine Dark Sea” about a fellow who had “the good-natured face of a reading man.”