Abridge This!

Audioshave: What sort of book could be cut in half without losing a certain something?

The only argument for the very existence of abridged audiobooks is an economic one. Retail customers, publishers maintain, will be disinclined to lay out more money for an audiobook than they'd have to pay for the bound hardcover volume. If the book's priced at $25 and the audiobook's 10 or 15 dollars more than that, the potential buyer's going to be resistant.

Well, maybe. My guess is that technology will solve the problem; with audiobooks increasingly moving from cassette to CD (as well they might, since car manufacturers have long since made the switch), and with the next generation of CDs likely to hold far more in the way of running time, it shouldn't be long before all audiobooks are unabridged.

(Well, almost all. There's a real artistic argument for abridging some lengthy nonfiction. Ron Chernow's masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton has a running time of 32 hours unabridged, and contains material of interest to a scholar but not to a casual reader. There are passages one can skim and skip in the bound book, but you can't do that on audio. The publisher accordingly made the audiobook available in two versions.)

illustration: Joshua Gorchov

The question of abridgment aside ("Abridged audiobooks? Yikes, how 20th century!"), what strikes me most about the medium is its enormous impact. Yes, audiobooks give a devoted reader something to do while he's driving somewhere, but that only scratches the surface of the potential audience. More to the point, audiobooks bring the world of reading to men and women who have never been able to read for pleasure.

Dyslexics are the obvious example, but I know several who have overcome the disorder sufficiently to be ardent readers of the printed word. And there are evidently a great number of persons with no clinical reading disorder who simply don't absorb information well from the page.

Forty-plus years ago I did some work for Robert Harrison, the ex-publisher of Confidential. If you handed him a piece of paper he'd hand it back and ask you to read it to him. At the time I figured the sonofabitch was illiterate, and years later I guessed he was dyslexic. But I'm not sure he was either one. I think he just "got" it more effectively through his ears than his eyes.

I'm the reverse—which may make me an odd choice for the host of Audiobook Cafe, but probably stands me in good stead working from a script in a sound studio. I listen to the audiobooks I review—that's my job—but I also read the bound books, because I absorb the text better that way, and that too is my job.

It takes a while to reach nonreaders with audiobooks—they're not going to wander into a bookstore, are they? But audio is finding its audience, and we're just beginning to discover its potential impact. I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if it helps resuscitate the short story. Short fiction, in great commercial decline since the end of the Second World War, lends itself perfectly to audio; you can have a complete reading experience in the course of a single commute.

Reading, it turns out, isn't something you have to do with your eyes. You can read with your ears, too. And, if you're in the mood, try some of my writing in audio form. But unabridged, if you don't mind.

Lawrence Block is the author of dozens of books, many of them available in audio as well as in the old eyes-only format. Some of the early ones, printed on acid-enriched paper, are crumbling to dust at this very moment.

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