Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of audio books. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to a series of recordings with excellent narrators. These include (for all but the first item, links go to iTunes so you can hear a sample) Tom Stechschulte reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (see the audio player at the bottom of the post), Steve Martin, David Rakoff and David Sedaris. I’ve probably only listened to 15 audiobooks in my whole life, so lately I’ve been making an accidental study of the form. My first conclusion: the narrator matters. A lot.
Just as the aesthetics of a book–its size, shape, typography, paper, etc–influence our reading, so too does the narrator influence our listening. In fact, I think the narrator’s impact is much broader. Consider what makes the aforementioned narrators great:
- They have distinctive voices. Some have deep, resonant voices–voices made for radio, but all of them are recognizably specific. Stechschulte has a gravelly rasp, Martin’s voice is mellifluous and Sedaris seems to have a bit of a gay lisp.
- They care about pronunciation. For me, hearing a word mispronounced in a professional recording is a bit like recognizing a location in a movie. It distracts me from the narrative.
- They understand cadence, and adjust the pacing of their reading to reflect the story’s inertia.
- If they do voice work, they do it well. This involves some degree of acting. If done poorly, or half-ass, it really ruins a recording. Done well, it can really elevate a book. Of course, this involves interpretation of the author’s words, but it’s a trade-off I happily make.
- This is harder to evaluate, but they sound like they care about and are invested in the work.
This all came to mind because the narrator of the latest audio book I’m listening to is totally ordinary. It’s a business book, and narrated by the author (there’s no need to name and censure him for something outside his, uh, skill set). By ‘ordinary’, I just mean average. I’m sure, should we record an audio version of our book, we’ll do no better. It’s too bad that everybody can’t hire a narrator like Tom Stechschulte, but I expect that the economics of the publishing industry preclude that.