Monday, October 23, 2006

Audio Epiphany

Okay, this is turning into "You Learn Something New Every Day" every day. Did you know that Yellowstone National Park--the ENTIRE park--is one giant volcano? I can't believe this is not public information. The last time it blew, 75,000 years ago, it covered 16 states (almost everything west of the Missississippi) with four inches of ash. WHY WAS I NOT INFORMED? It doesn't look like a volcano for two reasons--1) it's a caldera instead of a cone, meaning it's sunken instead of a peak (different ways of forming), and 2) it's so incredibly BIG that there's nowhere on the ground from which you can observe its shape.

I'm finding this book fascinating. It's called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and I don't think I would have liked it at all if I'd picked it up in print. I saw it in the bookstore the other day--it's long, and if you flip open to a page, you'll often find the author describing someone's quest for some esoteric piece of scientific knowledge. I think it would not hold my attention as a print book.

But as an audio book, it's delightful. The narrator's British accent is kind of swoony, to start with. Also, the narrator clearly sees a lot of humor in facts that I might not necessarily have found funny. I think Bill Bryson's intent is, in part, the same as Sarah Vowell's--where she rummages through history for the juicy, human, funny bits, he does the same with the history of science. At the same time, though, he's giving you an overall science lesson, plus fascinating tidbits like this week's You Learn Something New fact.

So what makes a good audiobook? It's tricky. I tried to listen to The Time Traveller's Wife a few weeks ago. I've heard it's a marvellous book, and I believe it, but I ended up buying it, because I couldn't bear to listen. This is because it started, early on, with a pretty randy sex scene between the two main characters on their first date. Now, at that point the narrator has let you know that they're going to end up married, but this early in my acquaintance with the characters, the sex squicked me out a little. But I feel confident that won't happen in the book.

Why? Because in print, the reader as a voyeur is tucked away in a corner, quiet, unobtrusive, unobserved. I'm watching these people live their lives, but they are alone together. The voice of the narrator adds another person to this equation (even though, in this case, the narrator is one of the characters). It's me and this guy watching these people have sex, and that's weird. Alternatively, it's this guy telling me about having sex with his wife. Again, weird. Reading is solitary; listening to a book on tape is slightly less so.

Also, it's harder to zip back and forth in an audio file than on paper. If your mind wanders, you can't stop reading--the machine is running. You can't slow down to savor, or rush to find out what happens (though in the latter case, I love the suspense). So I feel that a good choice in an audiobook is a story less densely packed than others. It's a little loose, with enough room for you to miss a sentence or two during the slow parts and not lose track of what's going on, or miss out on sumptuous prose that you'll regret for the rest of your life.

Narrator is a HUGE deal. Never get an audiobook you haven't heard a sample of. I really want to listen to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but the guy who reads the unabridged version available on Audible is just so EXCITED to be reading it, I couldn't stand it. You want someone who can do different people's voices without sounding like he's faking--someone who uses rhythms of speech and gentle cadance instead of falsetto and lisping to capture different characters. I sometimes find it a little distracting when they have multiple narrators for different characters, but when well executed, that can be the perfect solution. Memoirs can be great, if read by a good author.

Audiobooks I've enjoyed: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent.

So, there's my buyer's guide, for whatever it's worth.

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