The Heard Word

Deal W. Hudson
February 1, 2001

Homer, the first great poet of the West, wasn’t a writer but a performer, with the dining halls of ancient Greece as his stage. Before the advent of written literature, the medium of poetry was dramatic utterance and song. Eyes were no more necessary to the enjoyment of words than they were to blind Homer’s creation of his epics.

Now, thanks to sprawling suburbs and lengthy job commutes, the Homeric practice of listening to literature rather than reading it is back in fashion with the burgeoning business of audiobooks. From 1990 to 1999, sales of recorded books nearly quadrupled, and they now exceed $2 billion a year. The percentage of households listening to the taped volumes doubled to 21 percent from 1993 to 1997.

During the 1980s, such major publishers as Simon & Schuster and Random House created audio divisions, greatly increasing the amount of product. There are now over 100,000 audio titles available. A trade magazine, AudioFile, publishes a bimonthly review of the latest releases. The Audio Publishers Association started up in 1987 with just twelve members and has since grown to 200 members. The same year the first all-audiobook store opened in Denver, and there are now 76 of them nationwide—along with large audio sections in most major print bookstores.

Audiobooks have their own trade association, annual convention, and even awards: the “Audies” and the “GoldenEarphones.” There are even “stars” of audiobook narration: such familiar names to aficionados as Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Prebble, Frank Muller, David Case, and Alyssa Bresnahan.

Taped literature originated in 1932 when the American Foundation for the Blind created the Talking Book on long-playing records (themselves an innovation). Two years later, the Library of Congress introduced the Readophone, which could contain as much as two hours and 20 minutes of literature and music.

The modern recorded book was launched in a moment of glory in 1952 when Dylan Thomas recorded his A Child’s Christmas in Wales for Caedmon at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This may still be the most nearly perfect recording of anything by anyone. Listening to A Child’s Christmas and other recordings of Thomas reciting his own poetry—or his lectures, often delivered while he was intoxicated—will likely convert anyone to the recorded-book medium. The unmatched beauty of Thomas’s voice will stick in your memory and become the measure of everything else you hear.

Several other readers deserve to be mentioned along with Thomas in the audiobook hall of fame. Sir John Gielgud left a large legacy of recordings, from early Argo vinyl disks to readings of Pilgrim’s Progress and Brideshead Revisited on the Caedmon label. Unfortunately, the only version of the Brideshead recording now available is abridged onto three cassettes. Normally I don’t object to abridged versions of books in recorded format, but in Gielgud’s case, the quality of narration is so uniformly high that it leaves me thirsty for more. Jeremy Irons, the star of the 1982 television miniseries version of Brideshead, has an unabridged version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel that is nearly as good as Gielgud’s.

The taped audiobook, so convenient for automobile listening, had its beginnings in 1948, soon after Ampex started mass-producing the tape recorder. The first taped audiobooks were designed not for commuters but for blinded veterans of World War II. Philips produced its first mobile audiocassette, known as the 8-track, in 1963. By 1975, the smaller cassette had replaced the 8-track in most cars and homes. The biggest boost to recorded books came in 1979, when Sony introduced the Walkman, adding joggers and bus riders to the pool of listeners. Now, in this era of two-hour daily commutes, most audiobooks are played in cars and on Walkmans rather than in living rooms.

Talking Book World, founded in Detroit by Richard Simtob and Tyrone Persia is now, with more than 50 franchises, No. 164 of the 500 fastest-growing American companies. More than 90 percent of its business comes from audiobook rentals. Jerry Owens, the manager of the franchise in Sterling, Virginia, told me that Talking Book actually discourages audiobook sales because rentals bring customers back. The secret of Talking Book’s success is a huge stock of titles (the Sterling store carries more than 5,000) and rental programs that eliminate the irritating late fees of the video rental industry. About 75 percent of the Sterling store’s customers are commuters, so Talking World is “doing its part to solve road rage,” Owens said.

Browsing Talking Book World makes your mouth water. For example, you can listen to an unabridged recording of all twelve novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The classics shelf is quite popular, and parents who take the tapes home to their reluctant children often report back with a breakthrough in getting book reports finished. As might be expected, the mystery-thriller genre is the most popular—John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King—but other shelves in the store offer weightier delights, such as Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century, Shelby Foote’s entire history of the Civil War, and other items that make me wish I were on summer vacation even though it’s only March (I left the store with a rarity, a recording of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician.)

Jeremy Irons made an audiobook splash last year with a complete recording of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for Random House to complement his appearance as Humbert Humbert in the 1998 film version of that novel. The reading is a total tour de force, for adults only, of course. His characterization of the nymphet-lover Humbert is so compelling that I found myself, frighteningly, feeling sympathy for the character.

Actor Derek Jacobi has a long list of credits in audiobooks, but pride of place should go to his reading for Random House of Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield’s novel about the battle of Thermopylae. Most people associate Pressfield with the popular golf novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, which Robert Redford recently made into a film, but Pressfield is also, as it turns out, a first-rate historian of ancient Greece. His fictionalization of the events leading up to the great battle between 300 Spartans and many thousands of Persons, as told by the sole survivor, Xeones, makes for compulsive listening. (Gates of Fire, by the way, will also become a film in the near future.)

In the adults-only category along with Lolita is Joe Eszterhas’s rendition for New Millennium Audio of American Rhapsody, his sarcastic take on the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky saga. Eszterhas, who wrote the screenplay for the lewd Sharon Stone classic, Basic Instinct (1992), epitomizes Hollywood at its sleaziest, but somewhere along the way, he decided that the behavior of Clinton in the White House wasn’t good for his family and kids.

His dissection of Clinton’s libido makes cathartic listening and educates us on the subtle mutations that connect 1960s sexual fervor to Monicagate. Furthermore, American Rhapsody gets Clinton right and his conservative critics wrong. The conservatives assumed Clinton epitomized the excesses of 1960s sexual liberation, but in fact, says Eszterhas, there was nothing “cool”—no rebellious glamour, no heroic defiance of middle-class morality—about having bad sex with a homely intern. Clinton’s crime was making sex disgusting, Eszterhas notes shrewdly.

I have also decided to tackle the highly touted Aubrey–Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian via audiobook. They are available in both abridged and unabridged versions. There are 16 Random House abridged versions on tape so far. Robert Hardy’s readings of the early novels Master and Commander and Post Captain are far superior to the less supple versions of the later novels read by Tim Pigott-Smith. I understand that the conservative pundit George Will is a great fan of Patrick Tull’s unabridged versions of these novels available from Recorded Books. Books On Tape offers David Chase and Richard Brown in yet another set of unabridged recordings of the O’Brian series.

One of the Audie winners for the year 2000 was Michael York’s recording of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master (New Star). This mystery novel set in a fencing studio in 18th- century Spain is not the kind of book I would normally read. Suffering from an overly zealous preference for the great books, I have sometimes denied myself the pleasures of well-written popular fiction such as Perez-Reverte’s. At the heart of the novel’s drama is the seduction of stoic fencing master Jaime de Astarola by the beautiful Adela de Otero, his mysterious and talented student. York revels in the baroque mystery of how a disciplined and noble mind, steeled by years of rigorous training, could put everything precious to him at risk for a pair of flashing eyes. Yes, it’s kitschy, but it makes glorious listening.

A sure sign that recorded books have come of age was novelist-journalist Tom Wolfe’s decision to write the first stand-alone audiobook, Ambush at Fort Bragg (1997), read by Edward Norton (Bantam Audio). This hilarious tale of media overreaching was a spinoff from Wolfe’s eleven years of research and writing his best-selling novel A Man in Full (1998). Published in two 1996 issues of Rolling Stone, Ambush is set on a stretch of highway alongside an Army base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and involves a TV news producer, Iry Durtscher, who sends the show’s blonde anchorwoman to investigate the beating death of a gay soldier. With the aid of hidden cameras in the DMZ (Wolfe’s fiction off-base topless bar), Durtscher’s crew manages to record three drunken soldiers confessing to the murder. When the anchorwoman sticks a camera in the face of these soldiers and asks them to watch this confession, all hell breaks loose.

Wolfe’s latest book, a collection of essays titled Hooking Up (Simon and Schuster) has been recorded in part by Wolfe himself. We usually see Wolfe only in photos in his immaculate white tailoring, and we think of him as a quintessential New Yorker, but to hear him on tape is to be instantly reminded that he is a native Southerner and a natural storyteller. The best essay in this uniformly good collection is “My Three Stooges,” Wolfe’s revenge against his fellow novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth, all of whom had unkind words to say about A Man in Full. Wolfe’s discussion of his own work as a novelist, specifically, his loyalty to the tradition of naturalism (Dreiser, Zola, et al.), deserves to become the artistic manifesto of our generation.

My last recommendation is a perfect example of the kind of book that Wolfe extols, and is perhaps the most riveting experience I have had with an audiobook: Norman Maclean’s 1992 Young Men & Fire (taped for High-Bridge), his nonfiction narrative of a 1949 forest fire that has already achieved the status of a minor classic. The result of 14 years of research, Young Men and Fire is a meticulous retelling of the famous Mann Gulch fire in Montana that took the lives of twelve smokejumpers from the U.S. Forest Service. I first hesitated to purchase this set because the narrator is the author’s son John Maclean, and the sound of his nonprofessional voice is initially disappointing, confirming suspicions of nepotism. Within minutes, however, the son has fully assumed the voice of his father. Maclean’s prose is so pure that it points up the one downside of recorded books: The eye cannot linger and reread.

This problem is likely to be at least partly solved when audiobooks go digital, as they soon will, allowing greater ease of rereading, or rather relistening. The digital format, resembling that of a CD, will allow users to find specific places in recordings by selecting chapters or even conduct word or phrase searches. Already in development are e-books containing both text and recorded narration. Buyers will have the choice of reading or listening or doing both simultaneously. In fact, you can already download over 20,000 audiobooks from the http://www.audible.com Web site. (The online magazine Salon has made a big investment in this technology.) You can make these downloads via your personal computer or any number of handheld devices such as the Palm Pilot or the Diamond Rio 500.

Fans of Catholic fiction are urged to dial up Recorded Books, Books on Tape, and Blackstone Audio on the Internet. There they will find all the major novels of Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and Charles Williams, as well as odds and ends like Muriel Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate. Believe it or not, there is also as a complete recording of St. Augustine’s City of God.

The flourishing of the audiobook is good news for everyone who treasures literature. As Jerry Owens of my local Talking Book World Outlet put it, “Audiobooks subsidize reading; they don’t replace it.” Audiobooks remind us that reading is never passive and that it is always a narrator’s voice, whether silent or audible, that brings words to life. Since the poet no longer sings directly to us as in Homer’s day, it is up to us to find the singer. Audiobooks make that easy.

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