Hear ye

Audio books are the perfect holiday present. They don’t use up much wrapping paper, they ease the long trip to Grandma’s, and you can “read” them while scooping up champagne corks and picking tinsel out of the heating ducts.

But whether you’re planning to give audio books as gifts or treating yourself, now’s the time to make your selection. Audio books are hot — and the most popular ones are already leaving bookstores in fast-forward mode. Going from borrowing audio books at the library to actually opening your wallet for them is a big leap. Unabridged (and that’s the only way to listen to a writer’s work) audio books involve a substantial cash outlay — about twice as much as the hardcover version — so plan your purchase carefully.

Choose authors you really love, or select the kind of subject matter you’ll play over and over (poetry, meditation tapes or inspirational works) or that will have more than one listener (such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which appeal to all kids and most adults, or the Left Hand Christian adventures, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which seem to be passed among believers like Communion wafers).

Although used tapes can be treasures, make sure you can return them if they turn out to be damaged. Buying or renting audio books directly from audio-book companies or from Web sites like Amazon.com is relatively painless. The sale price is about the same everywhere, especially when you factor in shipping and handling charges. Rental prices are considerably lower, usually half the purchase price or less, and if you decide to buy the tape, companies will often give you credit for the rental charge.

Sometimes incredible bargains can be had by going direct. Dava Sobol’s brilliant Galileo’s Daughter rents for $15 — but thanks to a special promotion, you can add it to your permanent collection for just $14. Go figure. The point is, you must comparison-shop. I recommend established companies like Books on Tape (which has just about any title you’d want), Blackstone (for those with eccentric tastes) and Hay House (which boasts a large metaphysical selection).

But buying books isn’t totally about convenience. It should also be about pleasure — about expanding your universe. It’s still more fun to buy books from a real bookstore, and Asheville is blessed with a bunch. Nearly every local bookseller carries audio books — and they can all do special orders if you don’t see what you want on the shelves. Chain stores are predicting big sales with Patricia Cornwell’s 11th Kay Scarpetta murder mystery, The Last Precinct. But the buzz I heard is you should save your money and rent it from the library for free in a few months. Same with Deck the Halls, by Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol Higgins Clark.

The women-authored books I’d put my holiday money on are Prodigal Summer, written and narrated by one of America’s finest writers, Barbara Kingsolver; Winter Solstice, the endearing new saga from England’s beloved Rosamunde Pilcher; Red Tent, a can’t-turn-off first novel of biblical times by Anita Daimant; and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a feverish and astonishing tale of an Indian childhood that won the 1997 Booker Prize.

There’s pretty good pickings, too, from male authors. Don’t laugh — or should I say do? — at Shopgirl, actor/comedian Steve Martin’s first novel, the audio version of which he happily narrates himself. Another winning author/narrator combo is found in The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin’s new tale. At the top of my wish list, though, is anything by North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell, especially his haunting Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You — the most perfect audio book I’ve ever experienced.

If you’ve worn out all your Harry Potter tapes already, there’s a fledgling series you’ll love — The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman. The folks at Malaprop’s swear these books are fabulous — with a full cast recording and enough adventure to keep any quidditch-sodden kid happy for hours. Another series they’re raving about is Hank The Cowdog, written and produced by storytelling phenomenon John R. Erickson. If you have children with a reading problem, consider buying both the printed version and the audio version of a book. (Many kids seem to dramatically improve their reading skills with this dynamic duo.)

And speaking of giving — now is the season to give back to the library some of what they give us all year, with tax-deductible gifts to the library’s trust fund. It seems audio-book patrons are a loyal lot: “There have been more donations to purchase new audio books,” says Library Director Ed Sheary, “than anything else. People use the collection heavily; they go through all the books and want more.” Any librarian will be happy to tell you more about how to donate to the fund. And as a gift to other audio-book lovers, I’ve put together a list of some of the best places to rent and buy audio books, both on-line and in person. Contact me by e-mail or with a note in care of Mountain Xpress. And may all your holiday sound bites be merry ones!

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