Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Audiobooks for the Audiophile: In which narrators take precedence to authors

When I'm looking for a good book to read, I usually base my selection on author. Have I enjoyed a book by this author before? Have authors I love recommended this book? Has the author been compared to another author I love? I don't so much have favorite books as I have favorite authors.

With audiobooks I tend to use a similar philosophy. I look for narrators who can give consistent performances that I can enjoy whether I love the material they're reading or not. There are a couple people who could read the phone book and I'd listen to every word.

For me, there are two truly stand-out narrators in the audiobook profession. Every year they dominate audiobook awards, and their voices have become synonymous with some of the most beloved characters in modern children's lit. The hype their productions have received is well deserved.

Jim Dale and his reading of The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling played a huge role in making me an audiobook convert. His ability to make those books come alive--and give them a new depth even after reading the books several times--made me want to listen to more. I also watched as several struggling readers followed along with Dale and then took up later HP books to read on their own. Dale has provided the voice for a wider range of characters than just Harry and his friends, including the 100th anniversary recording of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (my personal obsession), Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You might also recognize his voice as the narrator of the unfortunately short-lived TV series Pushing Daisies.

But Dale is not the only rock star in the audiobook world. Katherine Kellgren has gained well-deserved recognition for her vocalization of L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack Adventures. My obsession with sea chanteys makes these audiobooks easy to love, but Kellgren brings a depth to Meyer's books that honestly isn't there in the printed version. She takes some fun adventure novels and turns them into something truly special. Meyer even admitted in an interview that Kellgren's narrations have changed the way he writes the book and said the books are edited for "readability by voice as well as eye" to make the recorded books more exciting. Kellgren is heralded for her work on the recordings of Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Series by Maryrose Wood, The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan and the Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer.

So what makes a listenable narrator? Versatility.

There are some audiobooks out there that try to accomplish this with full casts, dramatic sound effects and over-zealous productions. But I'm kind of a purist. The best narrators are those who become the characters so effortlessly that you can no longer tell the difference between the author, the narrator and the main character. While the ability to use lots of accents and distinctive voices helps, it has more to do with pacing and rhythm. As the action heightens and the tension comes to a pinnacle, the narration intensifies. You can hear the excitement and fear and passion not just in the words, but also in the voice. Perhaps even more important are the quiet moments of a novel--what is happening between the words. If a narrator can pull off the subtext of a novel so you can hear the character development that happens between the chapters, yeah, you've got an amazing reader.

This post is the second in a three-part series dedicated to Molly Jaffa, who loves audiobooks only slightly less than I do.

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