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Editorial July 2001
Lo-tech, Hi-tech ... Mid-tech?

By Wesley Williamson

How many ways can we access books for our benefit and pleasure? Until recently I had only thought of two; lo-tech printed text or hi-tech e-books (I exclude movies or potential futuristic developments like Realies or Feelies). Old fashioned as I am, I will always prefer the printed book, solid-textured in my hands. It has its own look and feel and even smell as, stretched out in my favorite armchair, I slowly and tenderly turn the pages. However, there are many occasions when the special convenience of e-books would convert me to their use, if only I could find a player designed to my specifications.

A third option has been available for a long time, that is audio or talking books. I had heard of them but assumed they were primarily for the visually impaired, like books in Braille. To digress, I have breathing problems (and I'm well aware they are Heaven's retribution for past smoking sins). Consequently, I spend a good deal of time in rehabilitation exercise on the treadmill, which I find intolerably boring. I tried reading but it was impossible to concentrate on the written word as I pounded along. Watching television bored me even more, and listening to music with a Walkman didn't appeal either.

I decided to try a talking book and gambled $20 on a pocket size cassette player with headphones. This turned out to be ideally suited to my needs. I live in Metro Toronto, which has an exceptionally good library system with easy computer access. I found that, though many audio books are reserved for the visually impaired (which is only fair) I still have a wide choice. This includes some of my favorite authors, such as Phillip Pullman, whose Golden Compass was the first audio book that I heard. This one happens to be exceptionally well produced. It is unusual in having a number of different voices, making it rather like a radio play. I had read the book before, but found that listening rather than reading gave me a different slant on the story, and new pleasure.

My only problem was that I could not resist listening even when I wasn't on the treadmill, and needed new material much sooner than planned. Talking books come in plastic containers, with anywhere from 4 to 16 double sided cassettes. This takes anywhere from 6 to 24 hours to play. Unfortunately, audio books are much more expensive than the printed versions, usually costing between $50 and $100. CD versions are available for some newer editions. They appear to be less costly, though their players are more expensive and bulkier than those for cassettes. Their advantage is that you don't need to interrupt the story to switch tapes.

The next book that read itself to me was Georgette Heyer's Arabella. This is one of her best Regency romances, with a charming and strong willed heroine in a series of witty predicaments. In this case there was only one reader, but she handled the different voices, male and female, young and old, with verve and aplomb. This one I would like to own. I have listened to many more talking books since, ranging from Kipling's Captain's Courageous to Dick Francis' Decider, and from Heyer's frivolous Bath Tangle to the monumental Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan.

Here are a few guidelines from my experience. If you are buying not borrowing, listen to at least fifteen minutes first (more and more audio excerpts are to be found on the net). Some readers are extremely good at handling different voices; a few are not, which results in irritation rather than enjoyment. Be very cautious if you haven't read the book before. Even the best reader can't improve a bad book but in fact, the book doesn't need to be bad, just not suited to reading aloud. I found this to be the case even with some best selling authors. Many books are published as talking books in abridged versions, at considerably lower cost. If this is what you want, fine, but don't buy one by mistake.

Most important for me, I have discovered a way to get new enjoyment from old favorites, and to discover hidden values in some books that I had read, perhaps carelessly, and underrated. I will happily continue to use both lo-tech and mid-tech books, and I will not rule out hi-tech e-books, if some unusually intelligent manufacturer finds out what readers really want before starting production.
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