The perils of audiobooks


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In Slate magazine, Nate DiMeo looks at the pitfalls of audiobooks. And listens -- a terrific aspect of his piece is that it includes audio clips. You can hear for yourself that even in a booming business -- audiobooks brought in close to $1 billion last year -- the productions are sometimes lacking.

Other times, they’re just off. DiMeo warns that cleaving too closely to the stereotypes of genre diminishes some books’ complexity. Alex Ross’ ’The Rest Is Noise,’ he says, should sound ‘smart, witty, and intimate,’ but instead comes off like ‘a tweedy prat holding court at a dinner party.’


Another disaster lies in hiring one reader to do all the book’s voices. DiMeo cites Jim Dale, who reads the Harry Potter series, as the rare talent who can successfully portray more than one character without sounding hammy. I recall David Sedaris doing this well too, but then, Sedaris is another rare talent.

A-list entertainers have also done some audiobook narration. DiMeo is OK with Oprah Winfrey reading Janet Fitch’s ‘White Oleander,’ but Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ as read by Sean Penn aren’t so hot. ‘I can’t listen to Sean Penn read Bob Dylan’s autobiography,’ he writes, ‘without thinking, ‘That’s Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography.’ ‘ He continues:

You can’t help but wonder if the demands of celebrity prevent the Hollywood star from taking the time with the source material that an audiobook star would. Whether it’s a clumsy cadence or a preponderance of retakes (which jump out at you when listening on headphones), there seems to be an inverse proportionality between the size of the star and the quality of the experience.

What DiMeo doesn’t tell you is that he knows his audio well -- he’s a veteran public radio producer and reporter who worked, for quite a while, at Marketplace. (Which I know because my cubicle there was just an arm’s reach from his).

Maybe it’s because I like reading printed words so much, but I find myself persnickety about audiobooks. Even those that are free -- some LibriVox recordings of works in the public domain are marvelous (I’m a big fan of one reader from Florida), but others are severely lacking. What audiobooks would you recommend?

-- Carolyn Kellogg