January 16th, 2011 / 3:07 pm


I prefer reading a book to listening to a book. Even when I’m driving, I prefer reading a book to listening to a book. I once drove eight hours, from Pensacola to Lake Wales, Florida, while reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This horrified everyone who cared about me. This was before the days of education about texting and driving. I was doing a two-year stint as a traveling salesman of a sort (I peddled eighth-rate university educations), which was great for seeing the country. Most of the country I saw was country I saw after I arrived at a place. The bulk of my out-of-Florida driving was on interstate highways, and they all look the same. My in-Florida driving was on two-lane roads I came to know the way you know the neighborhood roads that lead to your house. It got boring, I mean, and I was in the best phase of a reader’s life — that time when you have discovered that there is a vast literature available for you to read, but you haven’t yet read most of it.

Something happened, though. I traded my father a car for a pickup truck. The pickup truck had a manual transmission. I wasn’t very good with the stick shift. The first time I took it out on Highway 27, I stalled it at in intersection. The light turned green, and I tried to go, but I blew it. A man in a tiny white car rammed into my back bumper. It wasn’t a high-impact accident, but his wife was nine months pregnant. She was okay, but I had nightmares for a week about killing other people’s babies. There are other kinds of accidents, my wife said. What if you had been going fifty miles per hour? What if you had been reading?

So I started checking out audiobooks from the Lake Wales Public Library. I couldn’t bear classics on audio. The narrator was always British, and I couldn’t take seventeen hours of a British actor enunciating. It was wearying to my American ears. Highly expository writing didn’t work on audio the way it does in print. I nodded off and almost ran my car into a ditch listening to a Saul Bellow novel. Sometimes high literature worked on audio, but it was hit-or-miss. ┬áThe abridged version of Underworld was good enough to make me want to buy the real thing, probably because DeLillo’s sentences were so thrilling and unusual, and because even in audio you could get a sense of the symphonic construction of the novel. And sometimes an audiobook achieved the perfect marriage between the actor’s voice and the writer’s voice. Cormac McCarthy is never so alive as in the version narrated in a Southern monotone by Brad Pitt. The stuff that was reliably good on audio — Elmore Leonard, Richard Price — gave me a new appreciation for writing that privileged dialogue and forward motion through time. (Later, I tried reading books aloud to learn how the language worked, because listening to audiobooks tuned my ear more sharply to the music language makes, which changed first my reading and later my choices when doing certain kinds of writing.)

What has been reliably available in audio is bestselling novels, informational nonfiction, history, classics, books by celebrities, and books that have been adapted into movies. Independent literature has been less often available in audiobook, and since independent literature is so often what I’m now reading, I was happy to discover Iambik a few weeks ago (here on HTMLGiant, by the way.) Their newish catalog includes J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly, and more (Bernard DeVoto, Dustin Long, Andrew Kaufman, Gordon Lish, Ray Smith.) It’s a curated series–the Iambik people are choosing books that work on audio, and then crafting the audio package in a way that pleases the ear. I’ve downloaded a few, and I’m enjoying the care with which they have been recorded. And the price is right: $4.99 per audiobook, in most cases, in a market where price tags of $29.99 to $49.99 are not uncommon.

The Iambik people also run LibriVox, which provides public domain titles in downloadable audio for free. These titles are read by volunteers as an open source project, so they’re not as reliably good as audiobooks, but many of them are quite good. I’ve especially enjoyed downloading and listening to some of their short story mixtapes, which are full of Edgar Allen Poe and O. Henry and so on.

Iambik has a request area where you can suggest future audiobook titles. Here are a few I’d like them to acquire: Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, Stephen Dixon’s Too Late, Hiromi Ito’s Killing Kanoko, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Elwood Reid’s If I Don’t Six.

Maybe you have some suggestions, too?


  1. Anonymous

      Pitt’s McCarthy is great. Have you heard Jeremy Irons read Lolita?

      I’d like a single narrator to cover an author’s oeuvre. SOMEONE (hint hint) should read me Hannah’s everything.

  2. NLY

      I have both struggled with and enjoyed audiobooks, recently. I find it a very rewarding experience, in a few ways. In traveling recently between NY/London/Venice/St. Croix/NY I attempted to somehow actually listen to the audiobook I had opted to use on the trip (John Crowley’s The Solitudes, read by the author), and while it’s a great book from an author I’ve grown to cherish, there’s something inherently fungible about the experience–I wound up losing vast swathes of the novel to the errant contemplation it induced, this despite restarting chapters, the book, and scanning through to the last thing I may or may not remember. I didn’t especially mind, as the only thing my attention wandered less than was the narration itself, so the novel was more or less suited to this experience, but there’s something too passive about the audiobook process which doesn’t quite hold me. Plus, on a sheerly practical level, when gobsmacked into reverie while partaking of a book in the conventional method, you can always just set the thing down.

      I have planned to go through and record Autobiography of Red and Beauty of the Husband for some time, though.

  3. Colin Winnette

      As far as Librivox recordings go, the flat, matter-of-fact, authorative delivery works perfectly with Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons”. Other than recordings of Stein reading it herself, it’s the best audio version I’ve come across.

  4. mimi

      I’d like to know exactly what you mean by ‘eighth-rate university educations’. Just curious.

  5. Kyle Minor

      Tiny private university in Florida with near-zero admissions requirements and a literature professor who endorsed the “Biblical school of literary criticism.” Dark days.