A couple of weeks ago, I spent Monday and Tuesday at a sound studio on Ninth Avenue, taping a month’s worth of hour-long radio programs. As the host of Audiobook Cafe, set to debut in January on XM Satellite Radio, I interviewed two authors and reviewed one audiobook for each of the four shows. I talked in-studio with Ron Chernow and SJ Rozan, and on the phone with Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Rule, and Tony Hillerman. I recorded my reviews of books by Ed McBain, Philip Roth, Augusten Burroughs, and Jonathan Lethem. And I taped some of the show’s connective tissue (“Thanks, Jeff.” “And now for a word from our Twisted Sisters, Rochelle O’Gorman and Barbara Sullivan. What have you got for us today, girls?” “Over to you now, Jeff.”)
I spent the following Tuesday and Wednesday at HarperAudio’s sound studio, recording the abridged audiobook of my own forthcoming novel. This was the 17th audiobook I’ve narrated, so I know the drill. It went well; we wrapped it up early Wednesday afternoon and I headed home with a feeling of accomplishment.
Back in the day, and a long-ago day it was, the notion of writing something and getting paid for it was absolutely exhilarating to me. It barely mattered what I wrote, just so long as those were my words on the page and there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (And it didn’t actually have to be a pot of gold. A pot of silver was fine, or copper if you were fresh out of silver. Back then, come to think of it, a pot of pot would have done, too.)
Well, my first story was published in 1958, my first book a year or so later, and there have been a lot of words on a lot of pages since then. I still like to write and get paid for it, but along the way I’ve discovered something even more thrilling—not writing . . . and getting paid for it.
Thus, this second career with the spoken word. It’s been propelled by the same two motivators, ego and avarice, that got all those words onto all those pages, and it does make a nice change of pace from writing, and uses some different muscles.
And the muscles, I should tell you, get stronger through exercise. The first audiobook I narrated was Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, published in audio in 1995. That was a severe abridgment, the book cut down to 26,000 words, with a running time of three hours on two cassettes. (I wrote the book in 1976, and if I’d known that I’d someday have to read it out loud, I wouldn’t have named one character J. Francis Flaxford, easy enough to type but, I was to discover, almost impossible to say.)
The recording session went well, J. Francis notwithstanding, and I was out of there in six or seven hours. I got home around four and lay down for a nap, and I slept for 15 hours. All I’d done was sit in a chair and read for a few hours, but the requisite level of concentration was pretty intense, and the whole thing knocked the crap out of me.
Well, some of it, anyway.
Nowadays the abridgments are longer—six hours on four cassettes, or a little over 50,000 words. The work of narration is still demanding. You have to stay in the moment; if your mind wanders, it shows in your voice. But it’s not as exhausting, and I have to say I’m getting better at it.
But I won’t record an abridged audiobook again. Nor will anybody else narrate a book of mine in abridged form. There’s going to be a clause to that effect in the next contract I sign. No abridgments.
Because it’s been an embarrassment to me that I can’t recommend my own audiobook narrations, but instead find myself steering prospective readers to the unabridged versions with other narrators. The audiobook I recorded of All the Flowers Are Dying runs 53,000 words; the unabridged version, which Alan Sklar will narrate for BBC America, runs to 99,000 and change. Anyone who listens to my version will get the story. They’ll know what happens, although a whole subplot’s been excised, but they’ll miss far too much of what most concerned me as a writer. The book’s the 16th in my Matthew Scudder series, and what the book is about, as much as its plot, is aging and mortality, and Scudder’s response thereto. All of it grist, alas, for the abridger’s mill. And how could it be otherwise? What sort of book could be cut essentially in half without losing a certain something?
The thing is, nobody really likes abridgments. The listeners who don’t mind them are generally unaware of how much they’re missing. (And sometimes I wonder what they think they’re listening to. In the abridgment of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, the listener has no way of knowing that Bernie’s best friend, Carolyn Kaiser, is a lesbian. If you don’t know that, their relationship makes no sense whatsoever. The audio director, who read only the abridgment, kept wondering why Bernie never put the moves on her.)
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.)
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 21, 2004