Typically a book review is a book review. It’s about the author and their work and that’s it. But crossing over into audiobooks inevitably brings the reader into it as well because no matter how fantastic the book a poor reader can spoil it.
There is a school of thought that says the author is the best reader. I’m inclined to agree with this idea because no one knows better where the cadence is meant to go and how you should be pronouncing everything. But even then, it’s nice to have someone with a pleasant voice. So far, the two authors I’ve listened to, Neil Gaiman and Charles Frazier, have been good readers so I have no reason to doubt the theory. But, more often than not the author is not reading, so…
Many of the better readers are actors, although this is no guarantee of quality. The kids are big fans of Gail Carson Levine so when her latest book A Tale of Two Castles came out I was happy to get the audiobook for a big road trip we were taking. Unfortunately, the reader felt the need to use some strange Cornish (sort of) accent that was very distracting and the kids didn’t want to listen to it. A potentially enjoyable listening experience ruined. An actor can also get in the way by the choices they make for reading characters of the opposite sex. This is particularly unfortunate when men try to read women with a female intonation and end up sounding like some awful homosexual caricature. But so far these have been exceptions and we have had some great readers. One of my favorites is George Guidall.
And then there’s Jim Dale.
If you’ve encountered the Harry Potter audiobooks you know of Jim Dale. He has become legendary in the Harry Potter community for his readings and he has become something of a celebrity in audiobook circles. He is also an example of a solid audiobook performer bringing vocal characterizations that are engaging, colorful, and don’t go too far that they distract the audience.
An aside about Mr. Dale. I was recently reading a Beatles biography and the author mentioned the acts that George Martin had been recording at Parlophone before he signed the Beatles and right there in the middle of the list was Jim Dale. Before his current audiobook fame he was a popular singer and songwriter in Britain for many years. It just blew my mind that two of the biggest influences in our kids’ lives (the Beatles and Harry Potter as read by Jim Dale) should have such an odd convergence so long ago.
Anyway, when my kids discovered Harry Potter it was through tapes of the first five books that my wife had purchased for me when I had a hellacious commute. They listened to the tapes obsessively until some of them quite literally began to fall apart. While the Wife and I enjoy re-reading favorite books, including Harry Potter, this was too much. But there was a positive side effect. As I searched for classic books to expose the children to I discovered that Mr. Dale had been busy recording titles like Peter Pan and Around the World in 80 Days. I was concerned that the kids might not engage with the language of these 100 year old books but I needn’t have been concerned. The minute they heard his voice they embraced them wholeheartedly.
So, not only can audiobooks bring the extra dimension of performance to a piece of literature, they can make what might have been inaccessible accessible.