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As a compulsive reader of physical books, I tend to cue up an audiobook not so much as a sonic counterpart to print but as a portable verbal atmosphere to accompany some errand or everyday hustle. I don’t drive and haven’t had a valid driver’s license in twenty years, so I never have the opportunity to tackle, say, all of “Beowulf” or “Don Quixote” during a regular commute. But I’ve taken in “The Waste Land” while waiting in line at the post office, listened to Richard Feynman explain electromagnetism on the 7 train out to Citi Field, heard Marx anatomize the commodity form while walking trails in Van Cortlandt Park, had Iris Murdoch’s swirling sentences in my earbuds while ordering an everything bagel (lightly toasted). Once at a Key Food in Riverdale, I became so entranced by the mellifluous unctuousness of Jeremy Irons reading “Lolita” that, in my fugue state, the names of the different Triscuit varieties on the shelves were mystically annexed to Humbert Humbert’s monologue: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, fire-roasted tomato, smoked gouda, hint of sea salt, avocado cilantro and lime.”
Though audiobooks have their origins in recordings made for the blind as early as 1948 (Helen Keller called such books “the most valuable tool for the blind since the development of Braille”), they now form their own media ecosystem, with awards for production and performance (Audies), dedicated online forums for review and appraisal (AudioFile magazine), and publishers’ “beginner’s guides” to cultivating a relationship with audiobooks. The audiobook’s ascent into full-blown aesthetic autonomy came with the arrival of the iPod and its MP3 file format in 2001, and, as of 2023, more than half the U.S. population has listened to an audiobook (in Sweden, they outsell hardcovers). And, although it is tempting to evaluate audiobooks against the benchmark of physical books, they are really an entirely different thing. Of course, you’re not free to casually reread, paragraph reset, glance at the index, flip the book over to scan the insipid blurbs, or all the other desultory nonlinear things we do with books. And the tempo is fixed, though not entirely; you can set the speed at quarter increments, which gives a range of choices, from the soporific lowest setting, .25x, to the caffeinated upper end, at 2x. And audiobooks are not at all the same thing as a podcast. The latter are often messy, warts-and-all conversations, with all the “ums,” “likes,” laughs, and snorts left in, whereas an audiobook is a polished, edited, artificial production.
Exemplary of the audiobook as a production to be consumed the way you would a movie or a playlist are the hugely popular celebrity autobiographies read by the author. Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run,” kicks off with the tag riff of the titular tune, and then Bruce comes in reading like one of the gas-station sages in his songs. His occasional podcasting partner Barack Obama reads his own book “A Promised Land” (a version of the title of a Springsteen tune, incidentally) in those pleasantly elongated Chicago diphthongs that we know so well and that make him sound eternally sanguine. You could start a religion around David Lynch reading his book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.” Lynch’s voice oscillates between chipper Howdy Doody squareness and disarmingly strange metaphysical injunctions, as when he advises the listener to avoid the “Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity,” urging us instead to “dive within.” (also, each chapter begins with an ominous “Eraserhead”-ish whoosh). One from this genre that I particularly like is “I’m Keith Hernandez” read by Keith Hernandez, a member of the great Mets lineup that won the 1986 World Series. I hear Keith on cable TV two or three times a week during baseball season, so I get my fix in the offseason by listening to him tell stories about getting into scrapes with drunk umpires in the minor-leagues, on up to becoming an eleven-time gold-glove winner, and his appearances as himself on a couple episodes of “Seinfeld” (not to mention the Ph.D.-level insights about the science of hitting along the way).
Listening to authors from the more overtly literary end of the spectrum reading their own books can add new dimensions to the voice that we know on the page. Recently, during a long wait in the T.S.A. line at LaGuardia, I listened to the late David Foster Wallace read from his nonfiction collection “Consider the Lobster.” Wallace has a slightly breathy, adenoidal reading style, which brings out the humor in his pyrotechnic verbosity, and the title essay includes a truly ingenious audiobook device: each time Wallace moves to one of his knotty and protracted footnotes, a filter alters the sound E.Q. to delineate it from the main text. Nicholson Baker, reading as the fictional character Paul Chowder from his novel “The Anthologist,” sounds like a children’s-television-show host on PCP, saying things like “truth smells like Chinese food and sweat,” while Robert Caro’s memoir about the writing process, “Working,” pairs perfectly with his plangent New York City accent, in which every “time” is toyim, every “stand” is stayend, every “fast” is fayist.
Then there are the celebrity readers of other people’s books (like Irons reading “Lolita”). In some cases, a narrator’s past work may inflect the listening experience. The inspired choice of James Earl Jones reading the King James Bible, marvellous all around, also makes one think of Lord Vader imperiously commanding one to love thine enemy. The chilly delicacies of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” as read by Diane Keaton make for a disorienting (and not totally unpleasant) collision of the apocalyptic Yeats poem with which the book begins (and which furnishes Didion’s title) and the memory of that post-tennis, shabby-chic Ralph Lauren look of vest, tie, and oversized pants from “Annie Hall.” Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” led me to imagine a mashup of Jeff Spicoli and Harvey Milk birthing some kind of Dylan cosplay entity.
Professional voice actors tend toward livelier performances, even sometimes adopting different timbres for different characters. In one of the audiobooks of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” the male narrator jumps to quivering falsetto whenever the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy speaks, while in Agatha Christie’s “The Mystery of the Blue Train,” Hugh Fraser’s posh British third-person switches to something like a central-casting captain of industry fused with a cowboy when the American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin appears. (Americans in Christie are always millionaires.)
In some cases, an audiobook narrator is so striking and distinctive that their performance threatens to usurp the author as the main attraction. My regular re-immersion in the prose of Henry James is by this point so in admixture with the voice of Flo Gibson that I can’t read “Daisy Miller,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Ambassadors,” or “The Golden Bowl” without hearing her crisp, musical, sapient voice, which makes me think of a human owl. (Gibson, who died in 2011, had a career going back to the golden age of radio and was once named “Best Female Narrator” by the Audio Publishers Association.)
There is also a peculiar effect whereby different books read by the same narrator can seem to agglutinate into a single mongrel super-book. The audiobooks of Norman Mailer’s “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” and Nabokov’s epic “Ada” are all read by Arthur Morey, and I’ve begun to hear his circumspect and world-weary enunciation meld into an imaginary work in which the 1968 Republican convention is satirized between bouts of hectoring the reader about sentence construction, all in Nabokov’s wildly over-frosted late prose. Many of my beloved science-fiction audiobooks are read by Robertson Dean, whose voice sounds like a glob of pomegranate molasses falling off the edge of a spoon. It’s a good fit for techy near-future dystopias, at once HAL-ishly flat and resonantly mellow, saying things like, “[she] lay staring up at a dim anamorphic view of the repeated insectoid cartouche” (that’s from William Gibson’s “Zero History”). Dean also reads “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race,” by Richard Rhodes, a great historian of nuclear weaponry, a field that nicely dovetails with the ecological-disaster settings of much of the science fiction.
And then there are the free-form public-domain guerilla readers, D.I.Y. recordists tackling all of Poe or Plato, all of “Moby-Dick,” the journals of Lewis and Clark, or the history of Egypt, in eccentric feats of endurance undertaken under wildly varying microphone quality and often including unedited lip smacks and popped “P”s, and endearing attempts at correct pronunciation of original languages. There’s a Wild West of audio lit out there, all for free (via LibriVox).
And what of the many untapped hybrid possibilities? How about audio-born works of prose with sound design? Or giving the listener a menu of choices to select between different timbres or styles of reading, or the option of adding abstract background texture (white-noise surf, generator hum, light rain, urban din)? Or books that come with playlists to pair with different sections at the reader’s discretion? (I am ignoring, for the moment, how the licensing and I.P. legality is supposed to work with all this, which would likely be beyond byzantine.) Such hybrid artifacts might well involve new forms of comprehension, or maybe just something we don’t have a name for yet. In the meantime, I will hope for the imminent arrival of audiobooks that I wish existed but do not: Could we have Benedict Cumberbatch reading Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” Cate Blanchett reading Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of Good,” or “Hamlet” read by Dave Chappelle, please? ♦