I had occasion to discuss my position on audiobooks recently while driving around Melbourne.
I don’t think I’ve written about those positions here before, and indeed the extent to which I make use of audiobooks might surprise people who expect me to be a purist in my love of fiction.
Actually, I am a bit of a snob about it. As a general rule, I restrict my fiction audiobooks1 to things I’ve already read, or books where I expect the plot to be the major component–I don’t want books where the writing is key unless I’ve already had a chance to savour the writing, you know? So mostly my car listening is focused on “books I’ve already read”, “books I don’t think I will read”, “books I won’t mind only getting the plot from”, and “books where the performance will really add something to the text”.
Now that last category is an interesting one–there are several ways in which the audio version of a novel could exceed the original, if not on some kind of absolute objective scale at least subjectively for certain people. I don’t want to get into a whole theoretical discussion of that, though, since the point here is actually to highlight a good example.
So, with that in mind, let me say that, for me, one way that listening to an audiobook can be a better experience than reading the book is if the reader’s performance of the book adds something to the presentation that, for whatever reason, would have been absent from the notional “reading” I would do in my head.
I’ve seen a few excellent examples of this, although honestly it’s the exception to a staggering degree.
I’ve read all of Brookmyre’s novels, I think. They tend to be comic caper pieces, which I generally quite enjoy, but which are a bit popcorn-y. Just in case that isn’t clear enough, let’s say that they would make great reading for a long flight because they’ll keep you turning pages, and smiling while you do it, but when you’re done you probably won’t spend a lot of time thinking about the book. (While I definitely enjoyed Brookmyre’s comedy about a particular clever set of bank robbers, for example, something like Tibor Fischer‘s The Thought Gang would soundly trounce2 it in any kind of “which does Chris think is a better book” competition, since Fischer’s book has the caper, the comedy, but also brings the literary prose, the things to think about after, etc.)
Well, apparently one of the things I was missing to really appreciate Brookmyre’s stuff, especially some of the more deadpan comedy, was a good delivery in the native dialect. Most of the action in Brookmyre’s books takes place in Scotland, or at least involves Scottish characters, and a good portion of the dialogue is written in the Scottish lingo.
Well, having someone deliver that text, especially the dialogue, like a native really makes it pop. The result is something better than I could render it in my head—what with my never having spent a significant amount of time around that version of English. Certainly little things like the way “wee one” (for child, obviously) becomes “wain”, or how “mind” means “remember” add colour, but it’s even more prevalent when words like “bampot” and the ever popular “polis” start getting thrown about.
I should also note that Blyth does a wonderful job performing–it’s not like any fellow with a thick Scots accent could do this. Indeed, Blyth not only does a good job of bringing pacing, and emotion to the delivery, but he also varies the thickness of the accent during different portions of the story depending on the nature of the different characters–and indeed even outside of the Scots dialect, he does a good job on some pommy Brits and mad Irishmen as well.
I’ve pulled a bit of the audiobook out to illustrate what I mean. It’s some conversation on a bus between two guys who went to high school together–they, and the rest of their high school class–have been invited by one of their former schoolmates to an all-expenses paid reunion party on a resort he’s developing. The “Floating Island Paradise Resort” is actually an oil rig converted to a resort. This has some of the thickest accents. (This example leaves out the highly hilarious mercenaries, and the forcibly retired policeman in his pajamas.)
While I’m at it, I’ve also included a snippet of Jonathan Cecil doing P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve mentioned before how much I approve of that pairing, and it’s really for the same reason. I don’t have enough experience of turn-of-the-century English gentlemen of means to render Bertie’s voice perfectly in my head–yes, I love Wodehouse, and got a lot out of him before ever hearing this, but Cecil doing the performance sounds more natural than the one I had in my head–just like Blythe doing Brookmyre sounds more natural than it did in my head.
I should also note that this is definitely a learning process. I think my internal reading of Stross‘ Halting State was improved by having heard Blyth’s reading of Brookmyre–I already knew how to “internally read” the geek bits, the gamer bits, and the corporate bits, which were all pretty much in my wheel house, but I can also do justice to the Scots dialect and idiom in Stross’ book internally now.