The joy of audiobooks

Once upon a time, I was a stalwart purist about printed books.

I applauded the development of audiobooks and ebooks in general because I support anything that promotes and expands reading. They were great for others, just not for me.

The act of reading is still at its apex for me when I am turning the pages, the scent of the acid-free paper enhanced by the fragrance of fine leather binding. I hear the characters’ dialogue or thoughts or the narrator with my mind’s voice. I see all the scenes, landscapes and events with my mind’s eye.

Though I do my share of online reading, I’ve never liked ebooks, and their appeal is waning nationwide. Much of the research I do involves my computer or tablet screen, but I have never read a book for pleasure that way.

Audiobooks are another story.

It would be a stretch to say I was an early adopter for the medium, which predates anything digital—there were books on records and cassettes and even CDs long before Internet popularity and smartphone access exploded.

Typically, free audiobooks have only been those in the public domain, many of which are read by Librivox volunteers, whom I applaud for freely giving their time to make literature available. My first experiences were with such titles.

You typically get what you pay for with anything, and that is the rule as well with audiobook narrators. Like all rules, however, there are exceptions among no-cost Librivox volunteers, as the following examples indicate.

Known only as “Chip,” this Librivox volunteer lends his distinctive silky voice to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which I listen to every Halloween season. His supple recitations are like the brook that glides through the valley not far from the village of Tarry Town, “with just enough murmur to lull one to repose.”

Another favorite holiday Librivox recording is A Christmas Carol, read by volunteer Glen Hallstrom, aka “Smokestack” Jones. His pace, accent and character nuances make listening a wonderful gift to give yourself.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes have no problem finding free Librivox editions to listen to, and a number of volunteers do the Conan Doyle stories justice. But one—Simon Evers—is simply brilliant.

In The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Holmes scolds Watson for bungling a fact-finding mission.

“You really have done remarkably badly,” Evers-as-Holmes declares dryly in summation, with just the right cadence and condescension.

Still, few free audiobooks live up to the exquisite performances routinely delivered by professionals for the major publishing houses.

Edoardo Ballerini is an Italian American actor who has now recorded some 250 audiobooks, including the latest one I “read,” The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. It’s the 14th book in the quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme series, and the third I have listened to by Ballerini.

His power to subtly infuse each character with individualized “voices” is nothing short of superb.

My enthusiasm for audiobooks took off after I learned of the “Libby” app, which syncs to my local library card. With Libby, I’ve been able to check out all sorts of books for free—including recent editions—that I otherwise would probably never have read, from history and nonfiction to popular authors and pulp fiction.

After seven days, my borrowed audiobooks are electronically “returned” (unless renewed) to the library. Thus I’ve completed a lengthy string of audiobooks in a relatively short period.

I listened to Brian Kilmeade read both his Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. Tom Hanks was delightful reading his first book, a short-story anthology called Uncommon Type.

The narrator of Mindhunter, the chronicled career and adventures of psychological profiling pioneer John Douglas, perfectly executed the text, sounding like a seasoned FBI investigator himself.

A John Grisham fan, I knocked out a trio more of his novels: Gray MountainCamino Island and The Reckoning, read by accomplished narrators Catherine Taber, January LaVoy and Michael Beck respectively.

Narrators Will Patton and Ann Marie Lee eloquently delivered all the twists and turns in The Outsider (Stephen King) and The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn).

Autobiography authors often choose to read their own audiobooks. For Michael Caine in Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, it was an audible feast. For Hillary Clinton in What Happened, it wasn’t. Andrew Lloyd Weber wisely cast British narrator Derek Perkins, with 270 recorded audiobooks on his resume, to read Unmasked.

Janet Evanovich best-sellers abound in any bookstore, but I’d never read anything by her until I borrowed Visions of Sugar Plums on a whim last Christmas. Actress and award-winning audiobook narrator Lorelei King’s rendition was “vocal acting” at its best in conjuring up vivid imagery from the dialogue and dialect of the somewhat screwball characters.

The late American actor Ralph Cosham narrated my “re-reading” of Mere Christianity, and became the voice of C.S. Lewis forevermore in my ears.

Audiobook popularity has grown tenfold in less than a decade, and with smart speakers and other technology aids and improvements expanding, shows little sign of slowing down.

As a freshly minted devotee, I can fully see (and hear) why.


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