Curious things happen when you listen to a book. Masterpieces sometimes sound trite, and trash can take on an odd allure. Because they are experienced in the minivan, on the StairMaster, or while cleaning gutters, audiobooks have generally been denied serious respect. But the recorded book — whether downloaded from Audible.com or popped into a Walkman — continues a long and honorable tradition: Elizabethans heard the towering soliloquies of Shakespeare that today we typically only read. And Charles Dickens read his works with such flair that people listened to him for hours at a stretch.
While many terrific professional readers narrate audiobooks, there’s something magical about hearing an author speak the words he or she wrote — especially when the prose is as luminous and the voice as musical as Louise Erdrich’s. Her radiant The Master Butchers Singing Club (HarperAudio cassette: $39.95) is one of a handful of notable 2003 books narrated by their creators. The delicately written saga of small-town life on the Great Plains in the early 20th century is enhanced by Erdrich’s calm, precise enunciation, which forces you to pay attention to all the telling details a reader may rush past in hopes of finishing the chapter before the bus arrives.
Master glows whether you read or listen. But never underestimate the ability of a warm human voice to revive even moribund writing. Consider Bleachers (Random House CD: $24.95; cassette: $19.95; download: $12.95), John Grisham’s first narration of his own work. As stupefyingly dull as it is wildly popular, the novel describes a high school football star’s return to his hometown. It’s dreadful on the page, but when I heard it delivered like a campfire yarn in Grisham’s mellow Mississippi drawl, I must grudgingly admit that ”Bleachers” became marginally less awful, its wooden cliches acquiring a folksy charm.
Some novels, it seems, are better heard than read. Toni Morrison’s gothic melodrama Love (Random House CD: $34.95; cassette: $29.95) collapses in print; its oracular ghosts and scandalous secrets come across as contrived. Not so when Morrison reads ”Love” in her throaty, transfixing growl: The somewhat cockeyed tale becomes grave and haunting.
Then there’s Steve Martin, whose poignant The Pleasure of My Company (Hyperion CD: $31.98; cassette: $25.98; download: $16.95) is even more hilarious when read by him. One caveat: The protagonist is a gangly 31-year-old head case who falls for his therapist, but it’s impossible not to picture Martin in the role.
While fiction often benefits from oral delivery, there can be challenges for nonfiction tomes loaded with names, dates, and historical facts. Though I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything (Harper CD: $39.95; cassette: $34.95) — a riveting history of the Oxford English Dictionary — I often wanted to reread the meatier passages. You can’t readily do that with audiobooks. Still, the intellectual (and vocal) energy of the exuberant author kept me rapt.
But it’s hard to warm to Bill Bryson’s rendition of A Short History of Nearly Everything (Random House CD: $29.95; cassette: $25.95; download: $19.95), crammed with gee-whiz science and chatty asides about the big bang and trilobites. Is it still ”A Short History of Nearly Everything” when two thirds has been cut for audio? Not really. Then again, Bryson’s nervous voice and awkward cadences will make you glad for every excised passage.
Another wrong note: Anthony Swofford’s off-key narration of Jarhead (Simon & Schuster CD: $39.95; cassette: $35), his searing memoir of 1991’s Persian Gulf War. The ex-Marine reads like an MFA candidate presenting a spit-polished writing exercise, and his voice — common, a little high — undermines the raw brutality of his language. And with an audiobook, you’re forced to endure all those macho metaphorical excesses (”Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his c — -, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history…”) that a reader naturally skims.
If Sean Penn had narrated, I might have felt differently. Some can write, others can read, and the best audiobooks are delivered by those rare authors — like Erdrich, Martin, Morrison, and Winchester — who can do both.