The Deadly Art of the Audio Book
by Patrick Clapp
The highways and byways of the west wind over horizon after horizon before pausing briefly to intersect a greasy spot of civilization. Quite often, the scenic route is also the most expedient. For perspective purposes, the three major cities in Arizona are Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff. The latter two are roughly four hours apart with the former placed approximately in the middle. Los Angeles lies seven hours to the west of Phoenix, Las Vegas is five hours to the north, and Albuquerque follows from Flagstaff an additional five hours to the east. A road trip entails chewing up a considerable amount of highway time.
In Los Angeles, it is not unreasonable to spend two hours traveling from Longbeach, in the south of that sprawling metropolis, to Glendale, in the toasty north. Total traveling distance, thirty miles. The freeways of the city of angels are a system of arteries and veins and rush hour is the accumulation of red meat, Big Macs, and Haagen-Dazs set in mock parody of the "California" cuisine.
Through each of these limbo-land journeys, while locked away in tin-foil armored shell, there are avenues of escape available that even the HAL-like brilliance of On-Star cannot map. The book on tape, the audiobook, is a refuge to which many run when faced with commutes of pain or pleasure. However, even in this escapist pursuit, there are pitfalls and potholes to hamper the uninitiated.
Audiobooks are expensive and addictive, two characteristics that fit all too well into the American psyche. There is no need to buy them! For the avid consumer there are online rental clubs such as Taped Editions. There are also one at a time online stores such as Books on Tape and Simply Audio Books. However, your best resource is your own library. Public libraries typically have a decent selection of audiobooks. The online clubs and stores never seem to have the particular authors to whom I would like to listen. Libraries, though, have the capability to get selections not available at their own facilities through the use of the inter-library loan. This wonderful system, while not as instantly gratifying, is ultimately rewarding and infinitely cheaper (for you) than the club or rental process.
The other trap set to snare the unwary is the battle of the abridgement. For the true enthusiast, the aficionado, any abridgement, authorized or not, is an abomination. The beauty of the audiobook is to be swept away to every location imagined by the author, not to jump from weed-smoking in the Shire, to raving in Moria, to a ring-dunking contest on the slopes of Mount Doom. If the world wanted more "good parts" stories, William Goldman would have written more books. It takes more than three hours to read a four hundred page book. Abridgments slice out the minutia of detail that constitute a core reason for listening to a book in the first place. Always, always double-check the book you are renting (via library or club) for running time and abridgement status. Unabridged works will clearly state Unabridged proudly on the casing of the book.
The peril implied by the title of this piece has yet to show its true form. This is not a moral danger, bent upon pulling you forever from the beauty of the printed word. The true deadliness is in the execution, the very act, of listening. Inattentiveness is a leading cause of car accidents in the United States. The probability of being involved in an accident increases significantly while the driver is caught up in a fictional space battle or spy-thriller chase scene.
Precautions can be taken to minimize the risk. Keep the box or tray of tapes (or discs) nearby, within non-leaning reach. At a slow point, stop, or break in the driving, place the next tape in a known orientation, near your audio system. This will enable you to change tapes without looking or fumbling around the cabin. If the action starts picking up, be mindful of sharing your excitement with your gas pedal. Finally, audiobooks require a degree of concentration. When your driving endurance begins to fade, switch to music. The book will be there tomorrow and you need to conserve what reservoirs of energy you still retain for the remainder of the day's journey.
If you are still interested in risking it all for some fictional escapism, I will gladly volunteer some time passing tomes. Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who books are entertaining, brief, and excellently narrated by George Guidell. They typically run about five hours in length, being short mystery novels. I enjoy the quaint up country stories that begin about four books into the series. You can pick these up anywhere in the series, the introduction will catch you up on all of the important characters. I take these in moderation, as I find I need to delve now and again into more serious content like space battles and such. The best aspect of the Cat books is their narration, the most detracting quality is their tendency towards formulaic. Try The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, The Cat Who Saw Red, or The Cat Who Played Brahms.
My second suggestion comes from a different direction. Lois McMaster Bujold has been delighting readers for years with her tales of the misfit genius Miles Vorkosigan. Miles was affected by a teratogenic agent while still in his mother's womb, which left his body frail, bones brittle, and frame undergrown. His mind and wit are razor sharp, however. The Miles Vorkosigan books follow Miles from his failed start at the Imperial Academy through his odd, bi-polar military career and beyond. They are filled with intrigue, mystery, wit, space, and high-energy-if-I-stop-moving-I-am-a-dead-man action. The books are excellently narrated, with the only exception being that the female narrator tends to talk too softly and clips her words. It does not detract from the overall pleasure of listening, but it is a nit I have to pick. I recommend starting with The Warrior's Apprentice, The Vor Game, and then Cetaganda.
So, whatever title you test-drive, relax, lean back and enjoy your unabridged audiobook. All I ask it that you be careful when you are driving...not everyone will be as cautious as you, and I might be changing a tape.