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November 26, 2005

Holiday Gifts 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As traditional books stagger through yet another year of sales sluggishness, audiobook consumption continues to fizz: up 15% in 2003 and another 4% in 2004, with library circulation of audiobooks growing more than 13% over the same two years. (Here's a summary of the audiobook biz. Attention: PDF file.)

I'm going to indulge in yet another gloat: And who's been yakking about the glories of audiobooks, and how well they suit the conditions of our up-to-date lives, ever since this blog was born? Moi, that's who. I have to say that I'm feeling very impressed by myself these days. The underdiscussion of immigration issues ... The changing role and nature of magazines ... Concerns about the digital cinema ... Audiobooks as the coming thing ... I really should peddle myself as a media prophet. Takers? Yes? No? Oh, well.

Anyway, in my view, there are many excellent reasons why audiobooks are flourishing. More material is available every year, and in a variety of suit-yourself formats: abridged, unabridged, audiotapes, CDs, digital downloads. And many people have gotten used to doing business online. I've rented unabridged audiobooks from Blackstone Audiobooks and Books on Tape. They're both terrific services, reasonably priced and hyper-convenient. If you buy audiobooks and want to swap them for credit -- there's no point in keeping an audiobook once you've been through it -- I can recommend another webplace: AshGrove Audio Exchange.

Being an on-the-page book reader can be discouraging these days. When to read, for one thing? Commutes are growing longer, life in general tends to get busy, and by the end of most work days, eyes and brain can be very tired. Come 11 pm, settling into a comfy chair and opening a traditional book often results not in an intense reading-session but in a swift fade-to-snooze.

Audiobooks, by contrast, are usually listened to while commuting, while exercising, or while doing chores around the house. You're awake and alert as you listen, both because you're doing your listening during the brighter part of the day and because you're physically moving about.

Doubting Thomases claim to have trouble with being read to. And there are certainly a few challenges to overcome, at least initially. Listening ain't reading, or not exactly anyway. The words move more slowly, and there's that funny feeling that you're a child being read to by a parent. And there are readers to contend with. Some audiobook readers are determined to get all dramatic with material that simply isn't meant to be acted. Most audiobook readers and producers these days have wised up, however. They're more concerned with presenting the material clearly and energetically than they are with showing off acting chops.

But once you've adapted to being read to, the experience of listening turns out to be as interesting as the experience of reading. The case of drifting off is one f'rinstance. If I drift off while reading a book, I usually have to thumb my way back to where I lost track and then read my way back through. I've found that drifting off while listening is usually a different matter. The material, after all, continues to be read even when your attention has wandered; some of that information and tone enters your mind whether you've been actively focusing or not. So I often find that, when I rouse myself out of driftiness, I've picked up enough of the audiobook's gist to continue listening on. I do scroll back once in a while for a re-hear, but not nearly as often as I flip back in a book.

Does going with the flow in this way have the same impact on my brain and my thought processes that gnawing through loads of on-the-page text does? Probably not. Listening just doesn't seem to be as demanding a mental exercise as reading. On the other hand, it is some kind of mental exercise. Thanks to my Walkman and my iPod, I get through about 30 books a year that I otherwise wouldn't. And that's a mighty nice addition to my mental-exercise regimen.

As my favorite physical trainer likes to say: If you focus too narrowly on an ideal of physical exercise, you'll hurt yourself or you'll quit. (A wise life-lesson generally, it seems to me.) No, the best kind of exercise is the kind that you can keep on doing and re-doing, year after year. And in my exercise guru's view: Sure, why not mix up a variety of kinds of exercise?

As far as my own life goes, the choice isn't usually between great exercise and OK exercise. It's a choice between OK exercise and no exercise at all. Similarly, where reading goes: The choice for me often isn't between reading the on-the-page book and listening to the audiobook. It's between listening to the audiobook and watching my copy of the on-the-page book gather dust.

Audiobooks are often offered in abridged form, and many people object on principle to the idea of abridgements. I can understand this in some cases, but not as a general rule. It all depends, no? In some cases, in fact, I think that abridgements are a godsend. (I wrote a long posting about the glories of abridgements here.) For one thing, abridgements can liberate you to read books you otherwise wouldn't try. Where huge biographies are concerned, for instance: I have 600 pages' worth of interest in the life of almost nobody. Lordy, who needs all that detail? But six hours -- the length of a typical abridged-audio biography -- is like a long History Channel documentary. And I have that much interest in the lives of many people. So I listen to many more biographies than I'd ever get around to reading.

Audio abridgements are a wonderful way to explore popular fiction too; bestsellers and thrillers seldom suffer from being halved in length. Abridgements allow you to indulge your reader's curiosity. I've been able to check out the books of a lot of popular writers whose work I'd have otherwise bypassed. You make discoveries. V.C. Andrews was one example of many for me: I tried two of her novels on abridged audio, and I liked them both a lot. They were inspired pop-Gothic teenfictions that really delivered the sexy, suspenseful goods. Snobs often dismiss V. C. Andrews as trivial -- but of course most snobs haven't actually read her work. It's thanks to audiobooks that I'm able to assert that -- "great" or not -- V.C. Andrews was the real deal. She had the true fiction fever, and she had the talent and the skill to deliver her imaginings very effectively.

Another category of book that can benefit from abridgement, IMHO, is the ultra-long classic. Ideally, we'd all live forever, we'd all have trust funds, and we'd all be able to spend all the time we'd like making our way through all the gigantic books that interest us. The sad fact seems to be, though, that we live in a world of limited time, limited energy, and limited resources. We have to make do.

If there's a gigantic classic that you didn't read in college -- when time and energy really did seem limitless -- what are the chances that you're going to get around to reading it as an adult? In my case the answer is: slim at best. What with work and life, my brain and energies are usually far too scattered to be able to sustain that kind of prolonged devotion to one subject, let alone to one book. I suppose I could wait until after retirement, when the pursuit of money won't be such an intrusive concern. But with age, the eyes and the energy do start to give out. And why put a good book off 'till late in life anyway?

So, where gigantic classics are concerned, why not make use of an audio abridgement? Abridged audio may not be the ideal way to do Gibbon, Pepys, or Boswell. But it's an awfully good way. (Quote for the day: "The best is the enemy of the good" -- Voltaire.) It's certainly true that if you listen to an abridged Gibbon you won't have made it through every word of the entire thousand pages. But you'll still have spent around 15 hours with the book. That's a lot of Gibbon -- perhaps even enough Gibbon. Besides, are you a grownup or are you a brown-nosing student still trying to impress the profs? Hey, what say we leave the profs to their thick specs, scholarly feuds, and dusty studies, and get on with leading our own lives in ways we find congenial?

Blackstone and Books on Tape offer many, many unabridged classics for rental. The music company Naxos does a sensationally good job with abridged classic-book/audiobook projects. I've listened to a number of Naxos audiobooks and have been pleased each time. Their abridgements flow; their readers navigate the line between "just reading" and "acting" gently and attentively; and the audio productions themselves are very pleasing -- unforced yet alert, and with touches of quiet space and appropriate music providing relief, enhancement, and contrast. They're very civilized experiences. Being Naxos products, they're also outrageous bargains.

I've been through Naxos' editions of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "The Diary of Samuel Pepys," and Boswell's "Life of Johnson." And I'm currently finishing up their version of Herodotus' "The Histories." I've loved them all.

Part of what makes these editions work is a practical matter: These aren't books whose interest lies largely in their organization and structure. Instead of being carefully-constructed clockwork mechanisms, these books are huge stacks of pages crammed with terrific writing, observing, and thinking. Reading a thick slab of these pages isn't destructive in the way that pulling half the plot out of a farce might be.

At the end of my time with Herodotus, for example, I'll have been through the equivalent of about 200 pages of text; the unabridged book runs over 800 pages. (Naxos' version focuses on the Persian War sections of "The Histories.") Still, that's a not-bad amount of time to spend with Herodotus. Who, by the way, turns out to be a much more colorful, canny and accessible entertainer -- much more Cecil B. DeMille -- than his austere "English Patient" and father-of-history reputation would suggest.

I'm intrigued to note that Naxos offers an abridged (if still very long) "Remembrance of Things Past." Will a classy abridgement destroy Proust, or will it deliver a fair account of the book? Hmmm: I may give the Naxos Proust a try. More about this later ...

So, this holiday season, why not treat someone you care about to the abridged audio version of a gigantic classic? And why not feel good about it too? Amazon sells most of Naxos' audiobooks, and this place offers a complete selection. I wrote here about how much I enjoyed one of Naxos' music-history productions, Jeremy Siepmann's Life and Works of Haydn.



posted by Michael at November 26, 2005


The most interesting thing about V.C. Andrews is that new books of hers keep coming out even though she's been dead for years :)

Posted by: Peter on November 26, 2005 4:12 PM

You know, my primary objection to audiobooks has been the resale question: I sell back my used books to the bookstore--often for a pittance, yes, but it nets me more books. What does one do with a 'used' audio book? Esp. a 'used' audio file, which is more likely how I'd be consuming these here audio books.

Is there a good audio book rental service? Or am I stuck with whatever the public library has to offer?

Posted by: Colleen on November 26, 2005 4:57 PM

Peter -- V.C. Andrews seem to have become her own self-perpetuating trademarked industry, like Bond, or ... Damn, who are some of the others? Although I read somewhere that she did in fact leave behind a number of well-worked-out, plotted-out outlines. So maybe there is a bit of her in the books that have come out since.

Colleen -- Blackstone and Books on Tape are both first-class audiobook rental places. And AshGrove is a place where you trade the audiobooks you buy in for credit. There are links for 'em buried up high in the posting. When in doubt, I just pass my audiobooks along to friends or the public library and feel virtuous. Audio downloads, though ... They just kind of evaporate, don't they?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2005 5:35 PM

[Apologies for the length] One thing that's always struck me about humanities / fine arts is that you're always expected to completely read The Original, listen to the prof perform their page-by-page exegesis of it, digest that whole mess, and only then reflect on what you think about it -- is the author right or wrong, was this structural decision of theirs good or bad, does this phrase sound mellifluous or not, etc?

OK, so maybe someone can't "really" get _Ulysses_ unless they hunker down and traverse the terrain for several tours. But did you ever have to plow through _The Elements_ to understand geometry? Geometry's hard enough for most people even when it's presented in abridged, user-friendly textbook form! In the math / science areas, it's just assumed that it's better to increase the average student's knowledge of genetics or calculus, and if they truly like it, they can savor the subtleties of The Original in grad school. Now, _The Double Helix_ is fine, just like _Portrait of the Artist_ is fine, but there are some books that only a sadist would inflict on the average student (unless that's the point?).

I'm glad that more books are on tape, including abridged versions. It's a good sign that the fine arts / humanities are beginning to take their survival seriously. I was reading your _Ulysses_ thread, and it's true the literary culture at an elite university is no longer the locker-room of yesteryear when big-brained bookworms bragged about bench-pressing _FW_. However, when I was an undergrad and still a comparative lit major (later switched to linguistics), I noticed that now it's no better: feminine in the bad sense of striking sexy poses, draped in fashionable gobbledygook. The way students compete w/ each other & w/ the prof for personal verbal ornamentation, you'd think you were at on the Red Carpet watching struggling starlets trying to out-pose one another.

Books on tape are part of the larger movement toward greater accessibility of the sweet life to laypeople -- and w/o pandering. Once Robin Hood breaks into the vault of cultural treasures and redistributes them amongst the commoners, no one will have reason to consult the cultural gatekeepers anymore. At this point, the elite will turn increasingly inward and obscurantist until they either implode or die off. Perhaps then I'll join a lit class for the first time in decades -- not to suffer the prof's hocus-pocus about Victorians establishing empires to solve their identity crisis by locating an Other against whom to define themselves -- but to discuss the pleasure and enlightenment I received from the book!

Posted by: Agnostic on November 26, 2005 5:48 PM

I'm intrigued to note that Naxos offers an abridged (if still very long) "Remembrance of Things Past." Will a classy abridgement destroy Proust, or will it deliver a fair account of the book? Hmmm: I may give the Naxos Proust a try. More about this later ...

Naxos has won the you-know-what competition.

Posted by: Kane Citizen on November 26, 2005 7:58 PM

Michael -
Lawrence Sanders, best known for The First Deadly Sin, is another V.C. Andrews-esque example of a writer who continues to turn out books without the benefit of actually being alive :) His estate has contracted with another writer (Vincent Lardo) to continue turning out books under the Lardo/Sanders name.

Posted by: Peter on November 26, 2005 9:22 PM

Yeah, yeah, you're a hotshot media prophet. Let's talk something we can make some money out of. Where will interest rates be in 6-12 months?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 26, 2005 11:19 PM

I listened to the two Jeremy Siepmann books at and they were fantastic.

I was a monthly customer at for three years and I was mostly happy; the technology before iPods was not so great, and customer service is only satisfactory; but now that the product works the majority of the time, there's no need to contact them.

I like how I can redownload my previous purchases, with no limits. I didn't make it to the end of many books but I will try again.

Best audiobook I heard was The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub was narrated by Frank Muller; way before his motorcycle accident. (The book and audio is a masterpiece, but the film will be terrible, of course.)

Posted by: Aaron on November 27, 2005 9:12 AM

Michael – a quick aside. I read and enjoyed your archived thread on Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but will go toe-to-toe with you on his enduring greatness. On the other hand, I agree that sometimes people make too much on highbrow vs lowbrow, especially since it is often the case that one generation’s low culture becomes a future generation’s high culture.

Agnostic – re: “Once Robin Hood breaks into the vault of cultural treasures and redistributes them amongst the commoners, no one will have reason to consult the cultural gatekeepers anymore.” It is also that there will be increasingly bitter collisions between the publishers (and some authors) seeking to extend copyright and the new technologies that will make it easier to create, repackage and transmit cultural treasures.

I have a hellish long commute, but oddly enough have never been big on audiobooks. I’ll listen to the radio, especially classic radio broadcasts like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “The Third Man,” “The Lone Ranger,” and Mystery and SF programs (and I was not from the generation that originally listened to these programs). I’ll also listen to NPR programs like “Fresh Air” or “This American Life” (but not much other NPR stuff or most dreadful modern radio drama). I like this material because it’s relatively short and has built in breaks. I enjoy reading, and I think that I might prefer reading over audio books because I can control the pace: I can slow down to savor a passage that I particularly like, skim over parts that I’ve read before or don’t find as compelling, return to a section that was especially delightful – and it is far easier to do this with eyes and fingers than flipping buttons or twirling a dial to try to get to the right spot. I can focus better when I am reading; when I listen to material that is deeply interesting, I have to close my eyes or can become distracted.

I suspect also that some of my reluctance is also technological. Cassette tape was always a non-starter as far as I was concerned. CDs are OK, but I tire of lugging around a CD player and a huge assortment of CDs. I am intrigued by MP3 players, but am frustrated that some players lack intelligent bookmarking features or don’t have a built-in radio. Various non-iPod players I like keep getting kicked out of the market by Apple’s dominance and I am concerned about being caught with an orphan player. And two key weaknesses of too many MP3 players are battery life and headphone jacks that don’t work after typical use. On the other hand, I enjoy listening to music, comedy CDs, some poetry on my iPod Shuffle, and recently have had some fun downloading narrative MP3s (e.g., some Sherlock Holmes stories).

Posted by: Alec on November 27, 2005 7:08 PM


We're assured that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were recited as epic poems long before they were written down by anyone. (Frankly, I find it hard to believe that either was ever spoken in its entirety by any bard. The human memory simply isn't capable of it. An unknown genius took much shorter legends "performed" to the accompaniment of musical instruments and inscribed them in something like the form that has passed to us.)

In any case, there is value added when a good actor reads a literary work whose merit consists at least partly in the aptitude and thrill of the language.

And it's a godsend when one of the chief banes of our time, the long and tedious commute, can be enlivened by listening to a good book.

Reading the book is a different experience. Not better, not worse: different. Hearing and reading enrich one another.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 27, 2005 9:03 PM

Rick Darby: "In any case, there is value added when a good actor reads a literary work whose merit consists at least partly in the aptitude and thrill of the language."

The Caedmon audiobooks prove this point very well. Here is one of my favorites, and here is another.

Posted by: Brian on November 28, 2005 12:32 AM

You might enjoy my essay about the experience of listening to a long novel (Soul Mountain) in the car .

Here's an amazing bit of news: many city libraries are starting to offer free downloads of commercial audio ebooks via Netlibrary. You need an mp3 player that supports the encryption method they use (usually windows media player or ipod), but it's definitely getting to be user-friendly.

Beside the car, I've been listening to lectures (not usually stories) while shopping for groceries. The perfect setting to hear Ginsberg's Howl is in an aisle of Walmart. Half the people at Walmart are talking on the phone anyway while shopping. It's surreal. (In the location close to my job, they have TV sets near the registers playing commercials nonstop. Gee, thanks!)

That said, I still prefer cassettes for the car (although sometimes they get mangled). Except on long trips, getting your Mp3 players set up can be a bother.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 28, 2005 12:30 PM

One more audio book anecdote. Those Bill Bryson books are just rollicking good fun on audio. I have had to pull over my car several times during Walk in the Woods just to laugh (and avoid causing a collision).

Some people say they cannot concentrate on driving during an audio book. Curiously I find the opposite to be true. It enables me to focus the mind ahead instead of drifting off (and perhaps succumbing to drowsiness).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 28, 2005 12:38 PM

The first audiobook I ever heard was Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury when I was 13. It changed my life.

Posted by: hunter on November 28, 2005 3:30 PM

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