Audio books are convenient and pleasurable, but I think they are also one aspect of contemporary life that, as I suggested earlier, actually bring back some of the virtues of slower-paced, pre-modern cultures. You may use an audio book to distract you from tedious chores or a mundane day job (a situation, alas, in which I still often find myself) or from hundreds of miles of highway, but if you are listening to a good, well narrated book, you are getting something more than a mere distraction. You are participating in the time-honored (if updated to fit the information age) tradition of storytelling. This can serve as a refreshing addition, sometimes even a necessary antidote, to some of life’s everyday events.
Narrating an audio book is a subtle art. If you listen to enough books, you will start to recognize the very skillful pros who have narrated hundreds, such as George Guidall. The trick, as far as I can tell (in addition to having a good, clear voice, of course), is to put just the right amount of inflection into the reading. It also requires the skill to do different voices, which is no easy matter in a novel full of male and female characters of varying age, background, geographical origin and education. A few audio books have tried the format of using multiple narrators. While this sounds like a good idea in theory, in practice I find it to be a distraction. The most glaring mistake made by narrators that I’ve listened to is overacting. Narrators should not, as a rule, be acting at all. If they put too much of their personalities into a reading, they are violating one of the primary virtues of books –allowing the reader to reconstruct the book in his or her own imagination. If the narrator does this, thereby intruding on the reader’s mental boundaries, he is actually giving credence to the anti-audio book argument, transforming the book into more of a radio play (nothing wrong with these, they just are not books). Most publishers, however, find skillful narrators who do not overstep their bounds, but put just the right amount of inflection and emotion into the action and dialogue.
As I see it, certain kinds of books favor the printed version, others the audio. Some authors, such as Jack Keruoac, seem at their most natural when you can hear them spoken out loud.
On the other hand, books that require a lot of, shall we say left-brained concentration, are more written-word friendly. Sometimes it depends on the listener. For instance, I enjoy reading Russian novels, but I would not attempt to listen to Tolstoy or Dostoyevskly. I find all the unfamiliar names to be too much of a challenge, and the printed page allows me to take my time and, when necessary, go back and verify who is who. On the other hand, someone whose native language is Russian (or a scholar in the field), would have no problem listening. The same is true for non-fiction. If the field is very obscure to me, listening to it would probably mean missing key points. If it’s something I’m comfortable with, however, this would not be the case.
There is a certain kind of literary snob who does not consider audio books real books. By his or her criterion, if you’ve listened to a book, you haven’t “really” read it. We could argue the semantics of whether listening to a book can be literally called “reading” or not, but this is not really the point. When I’ve listened to an audio book, I tend to say I’ve listened to it rather than read it, but I’ve heard others say they’ve read a book they’ve listened to. Definitions aside, the question is, does listening provide the same experience as reading the printed version? I would say not entirely, but the comparison does not necessarily favor the printed book. A lot depends on the narrator, of course, but a well told audio book can bring a book to life in a way ink simply cannot. In an interesting way, the new technology that makes listening to a book possible actually harkens back to the very old tradition of storytelling, which predates the written word by millenia.
What are the best kinds of audio books to listen to? It depends, of course, on your tastes. Suspense and mystery novels seem to be the easiest to locate, though you can also find nonfiction (everything from self-help to history), classics and instructional programs (such as foreign languages). One rule I have with audio books is that I almost never get anything that is abridged. This is especially true for fiction. I really don’t understand the rationale behind abridged novels. Is it to save time? Yet, most people who purchase or rent audio books are doing so in order to fill time, so why skimp on the length? As I see it, any novel that would not be seriously diminished by abridgement is not worth reading in the first place (either printed or audio). Even genre fiction is ruined by abridgement. Often, mysteries and action plots, for example, are fairly complex. I am lucky if I can keep up with what’s going on in a full length spy novel; cut out some of the exposition and “minor” scenes, and I am completely lost. One exception to this rule might be nonfiction in a genre in which I am not particularly interested in general. For example, I might conceivably listen to an abridgement of somebody’s ten volume history of the Roman Empire. In this case, I’d probably never get around to reading the whole thing, and since it isn’t a specialty of mine, I don’t mind missing some of the finer points. In general however, in case I haven’t made this clear by now, abridgement is close to sacrilege where books are concerned.
Since I started listening to audio books, about ten years ago, there has been a great increase in their popularity. Formats have also changed. While tapes are still available, CDs started to replace them as the favored format several years ago. Now, with the mp3 revolution, downloads seem to be the wave of the future. Regardless of the format, however, the experience is pretty much the same. I actually prefer tapes to CDs (I still don’t have an mp3 player –I tend to be one of the last holdouts when it comes to new technology; I got my first DVD player only a couple of years ago, long after VHS became almost obsolete), because they are simpler to start and stop.
It would be difficult, probably impossible, to prove in a rationalistic way that any of these tales or experiences represent actual shifts in reality or visits to Otherworlds. Those interested in pursuing this possibility, however, might do well to study folklore alongside some modern theories of philosophy and physics and consider the similarities.
Shamans have traditionally believed something similar. Shamanic journeying involves visits to other realities and interacting with spirits and beings who reside there. Another aspect of shamanism is the belief that the dream world is just as real as the waking world, and that we are actually "journeying" to these Otherworlds when dreaming. That is why we often encounter people in dreams who are deceased in "real life."
We can, of course, simply categorize all of these tales as just that -tales, based on superstition, imagination or just plain fabrication, perhaps with alcohol or drugs thrown in the mix. However, when we consider the enormous number of such tales that are similar in so many respects, we might just as likely consider that there may be something to them. Could there not be a myriad of realities, some of which, under certain conditions, overlap with our own?
Stories from other lands have similar themes. The Welsh version of Tir Na Nog is Annwn, which is featured in the Mabinogion collection of stories. The Norse have Valhalla, though this is less a parallel world and more like the Christian heaven, as it is a place where mortals go after dying a heroic death.
Yet another, more modern, version of time distortion occurs in stories (whether true or not) of alien abductions. These are often frightening experiences, though sometimes the aliens encountered are friendly. In many cases, a common feature is that when the person is fortunate enough to be returned to earth, a distortion of time has occurred. As with faerie stories, this time distortion can go either way -even much more or much less time has passed than the "victim" believed.