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Bibliophile and audio books

I have long held a prejudice against certain audio books. Not for the common reason that listening to books is “cheating” – I grew up listening to the daily reading of books on Icelandic Channel 1 radio, and loved it. No, it’s because so many of them are abridged, or worse, retold. Imagine taking Jane Austen’s famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice (one of the most recognised in English literature):

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”,
and changing it to something like: “It is a well known fact that a single, rich man needs a wife”.

I can’t remember the exact wording of the mangling, but this invented example is quite as bad as the one I met with on starting to listen to what turned out to be a retelling of P&P (nowhere did it say so on the packaging). Needless to say, I returned the tapes to the library without bothering to listen to any more.
In spite of my aversion to abridged books, I can listen to abridged audio versions of stories I know well and that are well abridged (i.e. no obvious gaps in the story and missing characters or characters that suddenly pop up without explanation), because I can supply the missing parts in my mind, but with books I have not read before, I want an unabridged, unedited, unmangled version. And some books are just not easy to abridge well.

When I do come across an unabridged audio book in the library, of a book I like or want to read, I jump at the chance to listen to it. I love to sit or lie cuddled up in by bed and read a book, but I also love to listen while I do the housekeeping or work at my craft projects. I sometimes put a DVD in the player or a video in the VCR and listen to my favourite movies while I wash the floors or cook a meal, but an audio book is even better. There are no visual cues to worry about – it is all there in the reading, provided it is unabridged.

I am currently listening to an unabridged audio version of The Lord of the Rings that I got at the library. It is a massive audio book: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I finished listening to yesterday, takes up 16 CDs, and it takes about 36 hours to listen to. That’s about twice as long as it takes me to read the whole book. But it’s brilliantly read, which brings me to the most crucial point of an audio book: the reader.

A good reader can add an extra dimension to an audio book. Rob Inglis, who reads the HarperCollins unabridged edition of LOTR that I’m listening to, is very good, and gives one the feeling of listening to an old-time master storyteller telling stories in the dark. I have an audio book of P&P that is read so well by actress Susannah York that I sometimes quite forget it’s abridged. Some readers can even make you stop listening to the story and listen to the sound of their voice instead. Jeremy Irons is one - I could listen to him read from the telephone directory and not be bored.

Of course, a bad reader can utterly spoil an audio book. Last year, I tried to listen to a reading of Dan Brown’s bestseller The DaVinci Code, but gave up because the reader was so bad. He had the annoying habit of making women’s voices sound shrill, which made it torture to listen whenever the heroine spoke. I didn’t finish listening to it. (I doubt I will ever read the book – I heard enough to convince me that I would not like it).

What do you think? Love them? Hate them? Hardly ever think of them?


Marcia said…
Hi Jo,

This is not about books, I came here through your Icelandic cooking website.
Just love it as I've been to Iceland 3 times to visit a friend. Therefore being able to "taste" te real life (not the touristic one). With Christmasdinner (2003) we indeed drank the Egils combo. I really loved it! During that same visit I had the opportunity to eat the "rotten" fish on Dec 23rd. The typical dish for that day I was told.

Well, keep on reading :)

Marcia Dubbelaar
The Netherlands
Audio books are tough. There are so many ways to make me hate them, and rarely do I love them. I generally do audio of things I won't get around to reading or rereading. I am currently listening to "White Oleander" and enjoying having it read to me. I loved "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but I rarely say that when it comes to audio books.
Bibliophile said…
Hi Marcia,
and thanks for the feedback.

It makes a great deal of difference to experience a country from the inside like you have. I never really feel I've properly visited a country until I have been in someone's home or had real conversations with someone local who's not in the tourism business.

The Egil's malt and appelsín combo is now available pre-mixed in cans (only in December), which makes it a lot easier to export. I expect many Icelanders living abroad are glad they no longer have to make imitations out of Guinness and Fanta.

As to the "rotten" fish - you don't say whether you liked it or not. I used to, but at some point I started feeling sick if someone even mentioned it. The smell is enough for me now.

Bibliophile said…
Piksea, thank you for the feedback
Anonymous said…
I've only listened to a couple of audiobooks, so I'm still not sure if I love them or hate them... But I'd like to recommend one very well read audiobook: Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, read by Lenny Henry (
I have to find some other audiobooks read by this guy, it was fantastic!
Tim said…
Hi just a quick comment about audio books.I'm currently listening to Nineteen Eighty Four as read by Timothy West.Six tape cassettes or about ten hours worth.
Unabridged,no shrill female voices,grim but enjoyable after a hard day at work :) Its a Penguin AudioBooks product that comes in a small cardboard box containing the tapes and the book.Finally call me a snob but someone would have to hold a gun to my head before I read The DaVinci Code.
When you consider the amount of literature you could be reading instead....tim
Bibliophile said…
Tim, 1984 sounds like a reading worth listening to.

As to The DaVinci Code, I wanted to know what the hype was about, and heard enough to convince me that not only was the reader bad - but I was not interested in reading the book. It's probably not total shite - after all, a lot of people liked it - but not my taste at all.
Anonymous said…
Greetings, from Royal Oak, MI!

It definitely does depend on a reader to make the audio version worth listening to. Two of my YA favorites are "A Certain Slant of Light" and "Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging".

If you'd like more recommendations, check out the Royal Oak Public Library's blog at !

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