The Sound of Reading

Even before I bought my Kindle, I had adopted another post-modern way of consuming the written word. That would be the audio book, formerly known as “books on tape,” back when we had something called a “cassette player” in our cars (kids, you can ask your grandparents about that one).

Of course, back when they were books “on tape,” you were lucky get more than a semi-famous TV actor reading the Reader’s Digest abridgement of a few best sellers. If you wanted to listen to the unabridged version of Stephen King’s The Stand, even if it had existed, someone would need to back a Peterbilt truck up to your door and leave two shipping pallets full of cassettes on your door step.

In this age of the iPod, of course, I can carry the Library of Congress in my hip pocket, so I get my earful of reading via a service called Audible, which sells audio books via the old interweb, effectively replacing that eighteen-wheeler with my headphones.

It’s a remarkably relaxing way to deal with a commute that now runs between 30 to 40 minutes (okay, not so bad, but longer than I’ve had to deal with for the previous seventeen years), as well as make good use of some normally useless time by cranking through some pretty substantial books. Some of the books I’ve “read” this way include William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and the first volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. I also listened to Frank Herbert’s Dune, three novels by Neal Stephenson, and all three volumes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

The recordings of these various works vary from straight-ahead readings of the text to out-and-out performances, featuring a large cast of actors, music, and sound effects, as was done with Dune. On the other hand, the two historical books were pretty much straight forward. Third Reich and The Civil War were both read by the same actor, Grover Gardner, but while recording of the first was clean all the way through, the second varied widely in quality, with some parts sounding like they were recorded in a van driving through the Holland Tunnel.

The quality of the performance can affect one’s enjoyment of the book being read. I took a break from Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday because the reader had a way of making the book’s heroine, a super-competent secret agent, sound like a spoiled Valley Girl. I’m currently finishing up John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and I can’t decide if the author is a self-important windbag or the reader just makes him sound that way.

So, between the Kindle and Audible, I managed to feed my mind with the written word without killing a single tree.

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