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"Reading is vastly overrated."

Recently my friend Barry "Tex" Tushkopf raised my eyebrows with that remark while perusing the stacks at Ethelred’s AudioBook Store.

"It ruins the eyes," continued Tex. "Not to mention the back problems from reading in bed. And for what? Most bestsellers are junk. It’s like ruining your digestive system at McD’s. I’d much rather listen to a cassette version."

"Yet," I observed, "there are those who dismiss audiobooks as ‘McBooks.’"

"Snobs!" he sneered. "As long as you listen to an unabridged recording, you’re getting the whole thing, only better. Spoken words live. Printed words just sit there on the page. ~ Ah! Elvis Farquhar’s Barefoot Barrister, read by my hero, Frank Mumbler." Tex grabbed it and headed for the register.

"You don’t cotton to abridgments?" I asked.

"They’re for airheads," he replied, pulling out his Gold Card.

"That sounds like the snobbery you decry in bibliophiles."

"Your card has been declined, Mr. Tushkopf," the clerk announced.

Tex gave me a grumpy look as he pulled out his Platinum Card. "Speak English," he commanded.

"I can’t agree that listening to audiobooks equals reading, only better. Nor that unabridged cassettes are morally or aesthetically superior to abridgments."

"You’ve maxed out this one, too, sir," the clerk apologized.

As Tex fished in his wallet for his Silver Card, I continued, "Reading provides one sort of pleasure, listening another. ear They’re not at all alike. Audio imposes a performer between the listener and the author. Performance, the presentation and interpretation of the text, becomes the salient artistic feature. Anyone who thinks that he can pop a cassette into a player and listen to a book is deluded. You can only hear a performance. To take in a book, one must read it oneself."

The clerk shook her head ruefully, and Tex produced his Copper Card as I went on. "I find one sort of pleasure in listening to an accomplished, imaginative voice artist and another in reading an accomplished, imaginative literary artist. From an artistic point of view, not every book lends itself to oral delivery. For instance, though it’s beautifully written, I wouldn’t want to hear The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

"Someone actually recorded the whole thing," Tex informed me as he resorted to his Brass Card.

"What did the narrator do about the voluminous author’s notes or the editor’s notes? Did he or she just drop them? If not, how about differentiating between the two kinds of notes? Or referring from text to notes and back again, especially when there are several references in one sentence? No, it’s one of those books that must be read and reread.

"On the other hand, there are other books that benefit from oral delivery. A consumer, for instance, coming to Henry James for the first time would get a lot out of hearing an expert performer negotiate those dense sentences he constructed. The consumer could then turn to the book better equipped to understand and appreciate it.

"Furthermore," I continued, "of those texts that read aloud well, not all read equally well unedited. Let’s say, for instance, we come to the line, ‘I see, she said suspiciously.’ If the actor sounds suspicious when opining ‘I see’, isn’t it redundant to deliver the rest of the line exactly as written? And while we’re editing the text for such things, wouldn’t we have some artistic justification for cutting or abridging it? After all, you don’t write a book, which exists in space, so that it is absolutely compatible for performance, which exists in time, as every playwright knows."

By this time, the clerk had slid all Tex’s cards, virtually the entire Periodic Table of the Elements, through her verifying machine. All in vain. "If what you say is true," he snapped, "why you don’t see any audiobooks edited for performance? How come they appear abridged or unabridged and nothing in between?"

"The most artistic or listener-friendly performance does not necessarily translate into big sales. Publishing follows the marketplace. Which explains why the biggest bestsellers often sound so lousy. To take the time and effort to do them justice wouldn’t be cost efficient. And they sell whether they’re good or not. Then, of course, there are informational or instructional audios. A pleasant voice reading for clarity is all you need when you’re only absorbing the hard info during the daily commute."

"Barry Tushkopf, you’re under arrest for credit card fraud," said the cop who had snuck up and slapped the handcuffs on my companion.

"You make things too complicated," Tex complained as they dragged him out the door. 

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