Sunday, September 13, 2009

Books - Not Just For Reading Anymore

by Mike Knowles

No, you're not seeing the same thing twice. I picked audio books this week too. You figure seven writers, seven voices, we'd overlap a bit from time to time. This just means, loyal reader, you just don't have to pay as much attention the second time through.

A few weeks ago, my Creative brand 512mb MP3 player began to malfunction. This was not an inconvenience, but a tragedy. I don’t use the MP3 player for music at all. I listen to music the way God intended— in my car with the windows down so everyone can hear me sing along to Johnny Cash and the Police. The MP3 player is for books only. Period. The local library has MP3 downloads and my cheap MP3 player is always loaded with three or four. Everyday, well it used to be, I walk my dog at 5:45 in the morning and 5:45 in the evening listening to one book or another. The library doesn’t have the world’s largest collection so whatever I am listening to is usually not something new. I have been through the works of Barry Eisler, Lee Child, and Robert Crais more than once.

In August, my MP3 player started to go down. But, if I held it in my left hand and squeezed it as hard as I could it would play for at least ten minutes. After ten, minutes the player would spontaneously shut down and I would have to stop the walk, get the dog to sit, and pull apart the player so that I could blow on the circuit boards inside. I would then reassemble the player, stretch my hand, and squeeze the player again while I fast-forwarded to my last place. Usually the MP3 player died while fast-forwarding two or three times and I had to repeat the process. I did this for a month until the last book I was reading came to an end. I don’t know if Eric Van Lustbader knows about the lengths I went to in order to hear about what happened at the end of The Bourne Deception, but if he reads this he better be flattered.

I love audio books; they have never replaced the physical act of reading, they have only allowed me to put more reading into the day. Audio books are unbelievably great in the car on a trip. I had Walter Mosely playing in the car while I drove 20 hours home from PEI this summer and I was grinning ear to ear while my butt screamed in revolt. Even though the Mosely has consistently ignored my fanboy e-mails and requests, I love him and know that one day he will come around and love me too.

I can listen to any subject and be perfectly content, most of the time. The only beef I have ever had with audio books is the narrator. Whenever I think about bad narration, I think about George Costanza from Seinfeld becoming frustrated with the book he was listening to because it sounded too much like his own voice. His neurotic concerns were dead on— the voice is everything. Two examples of narration ruining something great come to mind. I love Mickey Spillane enough to get in a fistfight with someone who slags his work. I was over the moon when I found out his last novel was available for download. I stopped what I was listening to, downloaded The Goliath Bone, and got the dog out for a walk. It took ten seconds for me to become enraged. Mike Hammer, the baddest man on the planet, was voiced by Stacy Keach— the guy who played Mike Hammer in the television series. If you don’t know who he is Google his name and check out the picture of him in a beret— nuff said. People might of like him in the televised role, Spillane might have even liked the show, but his voice was nothing like what I thought Mike Hammer would sound like and it drove me nuts. I didn’t stop listening, it was still Spillane, but I didn’t want to keep going.

Another writer that I loved growing up that I can’t listen to at all is Robert B. Parker. I devoured the Spenser novels growing up and was really into the idea of revisiting them on my dog walks until I heard the voice bringing my favourite introspective, donut eating, detective to life. Joe Mantegna was the voice of Spenser? Come on. I know he played him in TV movie, but seriously, close your eyes and think of all of the things you have read about Spenser doing. The descriptions of what he did in the gym on a full stomach of fast food, the constant handing out of ass kicking’s, and all of the women who have thrown themselves at him like they were front row at a Tom Jones concert. Joe Mantegna could not be any less Spenser like. The narration suddenly made Spenser seem cheesy and lame. Mantegna owes me for taking the fun out of Spenser. The other thing that killed the Robert Parker novels for me was the number of times the author includes he said. Every other line is peppered with it and it becomes like water torture to listen to six hours of it. Even in the Parker westerns not narrated by Mantegna, the he said’s show up and piss me off. I can honestly say I seriously consider every he said I write because of those Parker audio books.

The two disappointments, and they are huge disappointments, don’t matter much in the end. I know the Spillane and Parker books make me mad, but I still listen to them anyway. They could be better, but they are miles ahead of holding a paperback in front of my face while the dog tugs me along. Audio books are like pizza when they’re good, they’re damn good, and when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good.


Bernadette said...

That pizza analogy is beautiful. And accurate.

Scott D. Parker said...

Until I bought my iPod in January 2008, I had two MP3 players, one for music, one for books and podcasts. Now, with an 8GB iPod nano, I always have my music and a book.

I cannot agree more about the narrator. A good narrator can take the printed words to a place the writer never knew while a bad narrator can ruin a great book. I have some favorites now and, while I won't listen to everything they read, I certainly love it when a book I want to read and one of my favorite narrators comes together. Among my favorites are Jonathan Davis and Scott Brick.

Here's a little tidbit: when I went to download the second Tarzan book from, I had my choice of narrators: a woman, an American, and a Brit. Naturally, I chose the Brit.

On the subject of "he saids," here's where I wish audiobook producers would do a little editing. I agree with Mike that the repetitive "he saids" gets REALLY annoying especially if the narrator is good enough to alter his voice depending on who is speaking. With an audiobook and a good narrator, you don't need the attributions. I wish the producers would actually remove some of the attribution and just allow the the dialogue to flow nicely.

There is one downside to having a great narrator: they are compelled to speak certain characters' dialogue in the voice they've created. In Jeff Abbott's latest novel, Trust Me, there's a scene with a mystery character. On the page, you don't know who is speaking. In the audio, you do...and the big reveal toward the end has been ruined. Sure, print readers could probably have guessed who it is but audio listeners *know*.

Unknown said...

I am a huge fan of audiobooks - it's the only way I read books now. My library is great for audiobooks. If they don't have what you want, they will get it shipped in from one of the other libraries in Santa Clara County (one of the big benefits of living in the bay area). I currently have Stephen King's Opus The Dark Tower queued up and ready to start listening to. With the ipod jack in my Prius and my 60 minute commute, the audiobooks are a godsend for me.

I just finished up on a few more Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels. Great crime mystery book series that I've been listening to for years.

Dana King said...

I listened to a Spillane several years ago. It was okay, not Keach reading. It's interesting you'd like him as the TV Mike Hammer, but not like the voice.

I've listened to Spenser books read by Mantegna and didn't care much for them, but I've also heard a couple read by Ron McLarty, who played Belson on the TV show. They were excellent.

Mike Knowles said...

I didn't like Keach in the show. To me he just didn't fit the character. Like Roger Moore as James Bond it just wasn't right.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Couldn't find an email, so I'll ask you here if you'd possibly be willing to write a review of a forgotten book for my blog project- Friday's Forgotten Books. Any book, any genre, any length. How about the first Friday in November? Love to have you should you be able to do it. You can see it here-