Now hear this

The “practically lost art of listening … is the nearest of all arts to Eternity.”

— William Butler Yeats

I’m cooking in the kitchen — and roaming Asia with Pico Iyer. Doing laundry, I’m uplifted by Kathleen Norris’ spiritual encounters in a Benedictine monastery. In the garden, I’m captivated by John Le Carre’s Cold War-spy world.

Like audio-book fans everywhere, I read as much (if not more) on tape as I do on the page.

Audio books constitute the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. But most fans can’t afford the high purchase price; instead, they rely on libraries. The Asheville-Buncombe County Library System holds more than 12,000 audio books, including those for children. According to library Director Ed Sheary, the demand for audio books is “insatiable. They are the single highest demand item in the library system.” Even so, many librarians worry that most of us are unaware of the audio cornucopia on their shelves.

Audio books will never replace printed ones, except among the blind (the industry evolved from the pioneering efforts of Braille Institute Books). Nothing can compare to curling up with a juicy tome and turning its pages. But audio books give time-pressured folks a chance to enjoy works they wouldn’t ordinarily get to.

And, at its best, this unique hybrid medium combines– in careful balance — the writer’s words, the narrator’s style and the publisher’s production quality. Unlike movies, unabridged audio books (the only ones worth “reading”) stay true to the author’s intent. In a good audio book, nothing is lost in the translation — and, in fact, the work is often enhanced.

Audio books do have their limits: They aren’t good for people with hearing difficulties, obviously, or in noisy environments (such as heavy city traffic). Novels with many characters or a heavy stream-of-consciousness style can be too confusing to comprehend audially. And certain authors’ styles may not adapt well to the genre. (Patricia Cornwell’s gruesome crime descriptions, for example, have a downright horrific impact on tape.)

But some books get better on tape. In print, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-based mysteries (The Blessing Way, etc.) put me to sleep. The audio versions, especially when read by narrator George Guidall — who makes every syllable sparkle — are emotional, unforgettable adventures. (In fact, any text narrated by George is worth checking out, in my book.) I tried the print version of Bill Bryson’s highly touted A Walk in the Woods … yawn. On tape, I laughed out loud. Celebrity memoirs, banal at best, are fascinating when read by the author. Mia Farrow’s voice narrating her own memoir, What Falls Away, is thoroughly convincing. (Woody Allen, you’re a creep!)

Narrating is a rare skill, and not everyone is cut out for it. Leon Uris’ Exodus was flat-out ruined by the narrator’s constant mispronunciations. On the other hand, David Chase’s snooty, slightly sardonic articulation (probably annoying as hell in real life) extracts every nuance from Pico Iyer’s brilliant travel essays.

Of course, even a good writer’s name on the cover doesn’t guarantee that the book is worth your listening time. Tom Wolfe’s Ambush at Ft. Bragg, written specifically as an audio book, is dreck — and a terrible waste of the library’s precious acquisition dollars. Lazy writing becomes glaring on audio because, by nature, the ear is not equipped to overlook. (Come on, Tom, just how many times in one short book can one comfortably hear the term “prodigious breasts”?!!)

Books on tape give readers the chance to delve into topics they feel they need to know more about, but simply don’t have time to explore. I never have the patience to actually read science books — but I absorb them ravenously on tape. Especially rewarding are books by John McPhee (Coming into the Country, etc.), paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (Rock of Ages, etc.) and Dava Sobel (Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time).

Perhaps the greatest advantage of books on tape is the way they can help you discover wonderful writers you might not otherwise have stumbled on. Roaming the audio-bookshelves, I found and fell madly in love with North Carolina poet laureate Fred Chappell. The mesmerizing telling of his mountain stories in Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You is perhaps the most memorable audio-book experience I’ve ever had: The oral tradition of the hills, caught forever in the rhythm of his prose, was further enhanced by a lyrical narration. Other writers who fare particularly well on tape include surgeon/author Richard Selzer (Down from Troy), science-fiction-tale weaver Ursula LeGuin (A Wizard of Earthsea) and spiritual seeker Kathleen Norris (Dakota).

Remember, you have thousands of audio-book choices just a library trip away. Happy listening!

(Next time: Practical tips on getting the most from your audio-book experience, and best children’s books — for adults!)

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