Eric Northman describes Oklahoma as empty, economically exploitable territory containing nothing but oilrigs and Indian casinos in Charlaine Harris’s final Sookie Stackhouse novel, Dead Ever After. While not all of Oklahoma matches this description, the owner of Fangtasia has my work commute pegged. The seventy-mile stretch of Route 40 that links my home in Weatherford to Oklahoma City University, where I teach, boasts oil pumps, two casinos, a quaint prison town called El Reno, and a Cherokee Trading Post that is a great place to buy buffalo burgers, but there’s not much else to boast of within view of the highway. I can’t handle the news on NPR anymore, and I’ve heard all the songs FM radio has to offer hundreds of times, so I needed to do something decisive to make my 140-mile drive bearable.
When a colleague informed me that the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin were the literary equivalent of crack, I lamented that it would be hard for me to read such massive texts after coming home from work to a wife and two kids, my eyes too tired to keep my contact lenses in, but Whoa! Wait a second. Audiobooks. Audiobooks! Bingo. I hadn’t seen any of the new TV show with Sean Bean yet, so it was a good time to read the books first, then Netflix season one. I got A Song of Ice and Fire – Book One: A Game of Thrones through Interlibrary loan at my university and got listening. Literary crack it was. Heard all of Martin’s published Westeros novels in about four months.
Sometimes, folks who have read these (and other) novels on the printed page have accused me of not actually “reading” the novels. Audiobooks are just not the same as the real deal, they say. So when I post on Facebook that I am “reading A Clash of Kings” I am, in fact, lying. It is an interesting point. I don’t agree. But let’s test the assertion anyway.
Am I lying?
I would be lying for sure if the A Song of Ice and Fire audiobooks were unabridged. They are not. I once listened to an abridged audiobook of Les Miserables read by Michael York. Six hours total. Have I read Les Miserables? No.
I would be lying if the audiobooks were full-cast dramatizations. I once listened to a play-like adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s short story, The Open Window. Have I read The Open Window? No.
But here’s where the line is blurred: in audiobook form, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials boasts multiple readers doing different voices, but it is Pullman’s original prose being read word-for-word. The Ender’s Game audiobook is like that, too. I think of listening to those audiobooks as being akin to attending a group reading of Milton’s Samson Agonistes in a church. I think all three cases count as “reading” Pullman and Milton and Card, but I’m happy to bow to the wisdom of anyone who says otherwise (while secretly maintained that I did, in fact, read Pullman and Milton and Card).
Most importantly, I’ll admit that I would be lying about having “read” an audiobook if I weren’t really paying attention. Since it is hard to listen to an audiobook and drive at the same time, the act of multitasking undercuts the act of reading. This charge is the hardest for me to refute in good conscience because I agree that people can’t really multitask well, as a general rule. Scientific studies have proven this. Now, students of mine think that they can multitask beautifully. One claimed to be paying full attention to the classic Swedish film I screened during International Films, Smiles of a Summer Night, even though she messed about on Pinterest for the length of the movie. After the end credits rolled, I gave a surprise viewing quiz and she got all the questions wrong. As we went over the correct answers, she was astounded to learn that the young divinity student runs off with his father’s lovely new wife at the film’s end.
“What?! When did the priest have sex with his stepmother?”
“While you were multitasking,” another student informed her.
Arguably, if this student can’t multitask, neither can I. Still, my commute is boring – so boring that driving doesn’t take a lot of effort. I can give an enormous amount of attention to any audiobook. And, let’s be honest, I can give greater attention to an audiobook on a quiet drive than I can to a hardcover/Kindle I’m trying to read in a living room with a loud TV on and children tripping and banging their heads on coffee tables next to me. It is hard to find a quiet time to read a book in any format in this world of noise and cellphones and Twitter and what-have-you. So I pay full attention when I listen to an audiobook. (Except when a part with Bran comes up in A Song of Ice and Fire. Then I zone out. But I zone out during the Bran segments of the Game of Thrones TV adaptation, too. I am consistent in my Bran indifference.)
Now, I am willing to make a few concessions to those who say that listening to a book is not reading it. The biggest thing I’ve noticed listening to fantasy books is that I never know how to spell anyone’s name, even after I’ve heard the whole dang audiobook series. A character I think is named Sir Jayme Lannister for two months of audiobook listening is really called Ser Jaime Lannister, while the Sersi Lannister in my head turns out to be Cersei Lannister, and the character from His Dark Materials I thought was called Lord Azrael is really Lord Asrael. Folks who have only seen the screen adaptations are more comfortable spelling these names than I am. So, when I spell a character’s name wrong – a name mentioned hundreds of times in a multi-volume work that I claim to have read – I lose some credibility.
In a similar vein, I’ll concede that there are some very visual books that probably can’t ever be turned into (good) audiobooks, like Watchmen, House of Leaves, and Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture. These concessions aside, I feel that I have read real prose novels and I should be able to tick them off my bucket list of books to read before I die so I can go on to do other things before I die. I believe that, whether you use your eyes to read the words on a page or listen to words being read to you, the words are reaching your brain and you are using those words to construct meaning and a narrative. There may be scientific ways of proving that what goes on in the brain during listening is different from what the brain does to see, but the end result is the same from where I’m sitting: a story is happening in my head that I am paying attention to, enjoying, and understanding on many levels. Generally speaking, I wish I read more than I do and I wish that other people read more than they do, so I say, any way that someone actually takes the time to read – more power to them.
To be fair, there are many literate people who admit that they might like audiobooks, and have even tried to like them, but they don’t like the funny voices the readers put on to differentiate characters and genders. They don’t like it when male readers use falsettos for women or when women try to do husky male tones. They don’t like readers with speech impediments. They also don’t like it when the reader and background music composer use theatrical tricks to place an interpretive gloss on a given character, or on the story as a whole, that might not match the author’s intent.
These are all good points. But not all audiobooks are created equal. There are good audiobooks and bad ones, good readers and bad ones.
Yes, some readers do a bad job or are not a fit for the source material. I heard a book-on-tape of A Confederacy of Dunces when the reader did funny voices and he definitely made me dislike Ignatius when I would have loved him if I had been reading the book on paper and not getting him mediated through an actorly performance. I have yet to encounter a huge disconnect between the choice of celebrity reader and the subject matter of the book, but I sometimes like to imagine bad match-ups. I’ve heard Christopher Walken and Iggy Pop do amazing readings of Poe poems and short stories, but I would be hard pressed to want to hear them read Little Women. And what would an audiobook of The Bell Jar be like if it was read by Jim Neighbors? Samuel L. Jackson? William Shatner?
But some readers are excellent all around. John Cleese’s Screwtape Letters audiobook is a revelation. That man was born to read The Screwtape Letters. And, I have to say, Roy Dotrice, who reads the Martin novels, is the most amazing audiobook reader I’ve come across so far. He has the British character-actor’s ability to conjure up all manner of British accents to indicate class, region, and ethnicity and uses it to amazing effect, giving tailored, recognizable voices to Martin’s gargantuan cast. Sometimes, Dotrice might err on the side of interpreting a character too much with his amazing array of theatrical accents. For example, his Tyrion sounds a bit like a leprechaun to me. Odd, but the upside is that the leprechaun voice does help me distance the noseless, fairly sinister Tyrion of the books from the scarred, less-problematic Peter Dinklage Tyrion of the show. Overall, the accents are amazing. My one real problem with them is, for whatever reason, Dotrice makes the mistake of shifting around the accents he assigned to some of the characters in A Dance with Dragons after being perfectly consistent with his voicework from novel to novel up until that point. I believe Arya and Daenerys in particular get new voices, and the change is distracting. (There was probably a time lapse between when Dotrice recorded that book and the others, which I’ll bet he performed consecutively.)
The award-winning Sookie Stackhouse audiobooks are arguably as good as the A Song of Ice and Fire audiobooks thanks to Johanna Parker’s tour-de-force performance as narrator Sookie Stackhouse, and her equally impressive ability to do a variety of hilarious macho male voices, from lazy Jason Stackhouse to loveably gruff Alcide Herveaux. I’m tempted to say that Parker’s performance as Sookie clearly outshines Anna Paquin’s (TV’s Sookie), though Parker has three unfair advantages: the books are “about” Sookie, while True Blood is an ensemble piece; the books show us all of Sookie’s thoughts and feelings, and the Sookie Stackhouse novels trump True Blood in quality even more noticeably than A Song of Ice and Fire beats Game of Thrones.
Of course, those who argue that I haven’t really “read” the books would use the excellence of Parker’s performance as Sookie as evidence that I experienced a dramatization of the book or an interpretation of the book, because I found the reading so arresting. Well, these same folks often complain of boring audiobook readers, too, and of being put to sleep. So I can’t win. I never fall asleep to audiobooks if I hear them during the day, but I do have one problem related to occasional listener fatigue: there have been times when I’ve wanted to back track to hear a bit again after my attention wandered – or because I really liked a certain section and just wanted to savor it and a rehear it. The problem is, sometimes that back button takes you back eight minutes and sixteen pages, and that’s just too far. I don’t consider “skimming” an audiobook much of an option either, for similar reasons, because I have no idea how much good stuff has been skipped over when I hit “track>” and wind up ten minutes deeper into the recording. I am sometimes annoyed by my not being “in charge” of how the story unfolds to the same degree as I am when I can flip back and forth pages, and slow or quicken my reading with ease when my attention level spikes or wanes. But, more often than not, it is a good thing the audiobook reader is in charge of the speed at which the story is read and not me.
Here’s the key case in point:
George R. R. Martin likes to spend lots of time describing the food that his characters eat. The folks on the Wall have a lot of mulled wine and salt beef, while the King’s Landing crowd eats 77 lavish courses at the Purple Wedding. By around book three, I was getting very, very tired of the food catalogues. I wondered why Martin dedicates so many words to describing all the food when the story is already (arguably) too long. Was the food cataloguing merely Martin giving mundane visual details, helping us readers suspend our disbelief in a world of ice zombies and fire dragons? If so, such lengthy descriptions were overkill. If I had been reading the books, I’d have skipped over such long descriptions. But that would always be a bad idea. Sometimes these long descriptions are Martin’s way of building suspense. For example, when I was listening to an audiobook of A Storm of Swords, I got to a section about a wedding at Walder Frey’s Twins. As I was listening to an extensive description of the food and an overly long description of the wedding rituals and festivities, I kept wondering when something interesting was going to happen. Dang, I wish I could skip ahead to something interesting. But I was listening to an audiobook, and I had no idea where the story would resume once I skipped ahead a track. I was stuck. Well, I gotta say, I’m glad I keep listening. Something interesting happened. If I’d skimmed the book, I might have skimmed right over the interesting moment, or had it ruined for me. Thanks, audiobook.
Also, I’m glad that I wasn’t able to skim past Martin’s long catalogues of the horrors of war in book two, or his extensive, frequent catalogues of the available food – catalogues that get shorter and shorter as provisions vanish and winter draws near. Those catalogues, which I would have skimmed on the page, have vital thematic importance. In Westeros, and in our world, we are wasting food, wasting lives, and wasting time with endless wars, pointless political infighting, and bitter family feuds while the climate is changing. This is a moral the books make clear. The show just doesn’t get the job done conveying this moral. Yes, fans and Honest Trailers like to complain – “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about the zombies? That’s the real problem!” – but they’re generally complaining about pacing issues and wanting to see more cool action scenes. They aren’t getting the thematic message. Yes, more folks in Westeros should believe that zombies are real, be afraid of them, and do something, but not enough of us believe in or are worried about climate change, either, so …
I think there’s enough grey going on here to not embrace a fully pro-or-con position on audiobooks. Why be dogmatic about it? You get out of audiobooks what you put into them. You can be good readers, feel the emotion, feel the language, see the nuances of plot and character and story in the written page of A Song of Ice and Fire or listen to the audiobook. If you watch the show Game of Thrones, you can follow it closely, grasp all the political commentary, see the literary influences of Shakespeare and The Chronicles of Narnia, and try to figure out where the story is going. Or you can just revel in the violence and nudity. You get out of Game of Thrones the series what you put into it. The same goes for audiobooks and for books on the printed page.
Feel free to judge me, but I love audiobooks. I will continue to listen to them.
If nothing else, my commute is a lot of fun now, and I no longer have to listen to FM radio anymore, which is a blessing in itself.