I don’t know from audiobooks. Just not my scene, man. Even if I did have the attention span for reading material that lasted longer than the time it takes to have a bowel movement, I get nervous and my mind wanders when I don’t have more than one source of input. What are you supposed to do when you’re listening to someone read you a book? I don’t take public transit and have never had to commute longer than 30 minutes. And I sure as hell don’t exercise. Are you just supposed to stare at the wall? I’m so self-conscious that I can’t even look directly at a wall for more than a few seconds without feeling uncomfortable.
The only time I tried an audiobook was back when I lived in Georgia and decided to take a solo road trip to visit my friend Alfredo in Washington DC. The only audiobooks the Conyers library had available were a biography of Princess Diana and a couple of Star Trek novelizations, so it shouldn’t be any surprise which one I picked. Did you know that Diana’s family was originally part of the House of… okay but seriously. The Star Trek book was engaging enough, and fine for passing the time while driving through the Carolinas, but it’s hardly literature. Real literature doesn’t include laser sound effects, for one thing. The book was read by Levar Burton, which gave it a “Reading Rainbow” quality. (I could be making that up, since I don’t remember which cast member actually read it, but I’m allowed to make shit up because I can do anything!) Anyway, it was fine for that one trip, but I never had the desire to try another one. And I can’t imagine that blind people (no offense) and those who go on long road trips by themselves (no offense) are enough to drive the popularity of the things.
It’s certainly not because the audio adds anything to the experience. Today I’ve been feeling even more culturally illiterate than usual, so I started trying to find a podcast of National Public Radio (the website is kind of Mac-hostile). That didn’t turn up anything useful, but I did find iTunes carrying an audio book of Roy Blount, Jr.’s book, Feet on the Street. “Cool,” I thought, and clicked on the preview.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Now, no offense intended to Narrator Paul Boehmer; dude’s got hella diction, yo. But casting is crucial. And if you’re, say, Paul Winfield, and you’re three chapters into reading the autobiography of, say, Rosie Perez, don’t you have some kind of obligation as a professional narrator to stop and say, “Hey wait a second… this just isn’t working out.”
I just spent a whole over-long blog post going on about Roy Blount Jr’s voice and how it comes through in his writing. And it ain’t that. Part of that lack of pretension I was talking about, is the fact that Blount can write the line “Chameleons skitter across turquoise stucco to disappear among elephant-ear leaves and bougainvillea blossoms, which Tennessee Williams likened to bloodshot eyes,” without it sounding all fruity. Even when he is referencing Tennessee Williams. It’s the author’s voice that’s important — if you were doing an audiobook version of Walt Whitman poems, would you cast Nathan Lane?
I was already halfway through this blog post before I checked the site again, clicked on the wrong link, and found the abridged version, which it turns out Blount narrates himself. (I’d assumed that they’d use the same narrator for both versions, and just audio-edit out the parts they wanted to abridge). Now that’s more like it. Picayune has just barely over two syllables, not three. Oyster has an extra r in there somewhere. And you can tell it’s genuine, because it’s got that half-stilted, half-familiar sound that comes from a non-actor reading his own work.
Sounds like one of my uncles proudly reading a kid’s book report to the family. At least, I imagine it would until he got to the parts of the book about how New Orleans taught him to be less apprehensive around gay men. Or how he was walking along the banquette (pronounced banquette) one morning and “coming the other way… are two head-shaven guys and between them a pretty woman with long black switchy hair… And here, from across the street, is what I hear the woman say: ‘My hole hurts!'”
So let it be said that I’m against audiobooks. At least, until I find the version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s as read by James Earl Jones.