It Ain't What You Do, It's The Way That You Do It

I’ve been listening to a lot of books on CD recently.

This is not my preferred way of reading books. But it is a good way to burn up a commute, while also being entertained and sometimes educated. And since my favorite place in the world, the Carnegie Library, has a great collection of books on CD, I don’t even have to bankrupt myself doing it.

In listening to so many books on CD, I’ve discovered a very interesting phenomenon. Let me set the stage before revealing it to you.

Since I prefer actual reading to listening to books, I tend to not get the books I am very excited about on CD; I’ve tried, and usually I just get frustrated and end up abandoning the CD in favor of the written word. Instead, I use books on CD to fill in the gaps. I seek out – usually – nonfiction books on topics that I am vaguely interested in, but reluctant to commit to actually reading about. So: lots of history (classical and military), a bit of economics, the occasional biography. Once in a blue moon I’ll add some pulpy fiction to the mix. That sort of thing.

What I have discovered, through trial and error, is this: it is more important that the person reading the book is a good reader than that the book be an interesting book. Put another way: I would rather listen to a superb reader read a bad book than listen to a bad reader read a superb book.

It makes sense: an audiobook is an intermediated experience, and the mediator is, after all, a performer. A shoddy stage performance can ruin Shakespeare, and just as certainly a shoddy voice performance can ruin an audiobook. And a great performance can uplift it.

This conclusion is remarkably liberating. It makes the decision process for finding a book to listen to remarkably simple: find a book read by a performer whose other readings you have enjoyed. Currently my favorite reader, bar none, is John Rafter Lee, perhaps better known as the voice of Trevor Goodchilde in Aeon Flux:

So far I’ve listened to his reading of George R. R Martin’s A Feast for Crows (a book I sort of hated actually reading, but enjoyed listening to) and the pseudohistorical polemic Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West.

When I can’t find something by John Lee, I have a simpler algorithm now. I go to the library, and I pick out four completely random nonfiction audiobooks. Then I listen to the first chapter of each in the car. Any in which the reader mispronounces a word go back to the library the next day (you’d think this would be unusual, but it happens in about 50% of the books I’ve grabbed, particularly with respect to place names. My conclusion is that while these audiobooks may be edited in a technical sense, there is little or no knowledgeable editorial oversight.) Books in which the reader is technically precise yet subtly grating (hello, Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward) can take a little longer to go in the returns bin. Typically, with this method, I’ll end up with one audiobook out of four that is enjoyable and properly read. And that lets me add a new performer to my list of Readers That I Personally Like.