Episode 63: Different formats, audiobooks

Day one, it’s a late night but a promise is a promise even if no one but myself gets disappointed for not keeping it. One of the cool things I discovered during the harrowing experience of reading fro comprehensive exams is the beauty of texts in the public domain. Basically, anything written before Steam Boat Willie (Walt Disney’s first cartoon) is freely available to the public and any other author can do anything to it without having to ask permission or pay anyone anything. While some make Dracula, Frankenstein and other literary legends do whatever they want (I’m looking at you League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) others do cool things for the good of the general populace. Project Gutenberg gives you etext versions of pretty much every major literary work ever in the public domain and they even have Kindle formats too. The one thing that really blew my mind was Librivox, which does the same thing but with audiobooks. However, it does have some issues.

First off, librivox is based entirely on volunteers that record their readings of books and upload them. That means there is an issue of availability. You can give a few grad students a crappy stipend and they can digitize the works of just about anyone in a decent amount of time and have them ready for public consumption. Audiobooks require the painstaking task of actually sitting there and reading out loud word for word everything which takes a really long time per individual text. You can’t just run the digitext through a Stephen Hawking style read and speak device and hope to come out with something understandable.

Second is the idea of pacing. Regular readers will know that this is a big issue with me when it comes to serials so I can’t overlook it here either. Print books are an active form of literary perception for the reader. You decide the speed, the focus, and control of your engagement with the text. Audiobooks, like movies or television shows are passive in that they happen and it’s up to you to pay attention and follow the suprescribed pace. Audiobooks have as much control as a DVD but it’s still pretty clunky depending on your listening device. I have a pretty crappy MP3 by most people’s standards that can play and pause tracks but if I don’t hear a particular passage or forget to hit pause then I miss a big chunk of text and have to rehear the whole chapter from the beginning. With 20 minute chapter lengths, this can take a while. Often times you just keep listening and hope that whatever you didn’t get becomes clear enough somewhere down the line.

Finally, the one thing that most irritates me about audiobooks is the audio itself. As I mentioned earlier, these are volunteers with time on their hands, enough to record 20 hours of a book or more. The quality is not exactly great but at least I have not ended up with someone that was horribly sick or next to a construction site during their reading. You get an interesting variety of characters that range from completely average, exceptional, odd old ladies, various accents that pronounce things in ways that make you shudder, and some kind of weird robot person. In some books, like my previous attempt at going through Middlemarch, I got the whole ensemble above, mostly in that order, that made me give up on the book after about a third of the way through it. Let me do you a favor and give you some advice when it comes to audiobooks. First, always go for the dramatic reading. Two, check each voice actor for a little while before comitting to having their voice following you around for way too long. C) just pick anything read by Elizabeth Klett. I swear, her reading of Lady Audley’s Secret has ruined for everyone else on the librivox roster.

The weird thing is that I’m honestly considering volunteering myself one of these days just so that my name appears in more venues during Internet searches and to earnestly help out a literary cause. Besides, it would give me an excuse to do all my crazy voices from previous Dungeons & Dragons characters. Annoying gnome voice that I stole from Little Kuriboh’s interpretation of Marik Ishtar is sure to be memorable for a pompous Victorian villain.

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