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Editorial October 2005
Eye & Ear on Books

by Hilary Williamson

We've had fun exploring the audiobook (recorded book, talking book) phenomenon at BookLoons for years now - from its use for family storytelling (Listening to Lord of the Rings) to a new trend in The Art of Audio Comics. Audiobooks have great value as Books for the Blind (or for anyone who's challenged in decyphering words on a page, from the dyslexic to the elderly), but also to accompany activities ranging from long walks or a regular commute to holiday baking (see Books on Tape).

What's clear to all of us who've taken the time to enjoy listening to stories is that the book experience is a very different one taken through the ear rather than the eye (which makes a lot of sense, since different parts of the brain are engaged in the processes). When we look at squiggles on a page, our imaginations fill in whatever characterization is not conveyed through the words. Listening, we get clues from the narrator's accent and emphasis. This brings minor characters forward more strongly to me - and conveys emotions more vividly - when I listen rather than read.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceAh, the narrator - he or she makes all the difference to an audiobook. A good one acts the story so well that listeners find new insights and interest in it, while a weak one can turn us off a book we might otherwise enjoy. I just spent many car trips listening to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince narrated by Jim Dale (as I listened I had a mental image of his ducking behind a screen for a quick change of costume every time he switched roles).

As always, Dale does an outstanding job, using regional accents to differentiate amongst the large cast of characters. His performance of Slughorn perfectly conveys the professor's selfish affability and obsequious cultivation of anyone with potential to become rich, famous or powerful. My only discomfort lay in Dale's voicing of younger women, especially Hermione, whose voice might have been done more credibly by a female narrator.

As a very speedy reader, listening slows the absorption of story enough that I notice many fascinating details (like gossiping ghosts) I skimmed over in my rush to find out what was next in the hardcover version. And, this being our second exposure to the story, my sons and I shared Aha moments when we picked up on comments that made more sense of the ending (of course, we're still arguing about what that ending means for Harry's future).

I find that audio is an excellent medium for humor, so had more fun with Won-Won's romantic escapades this time as well, shaking my head over his folly (after all Hermione is not only a woman scorned, she's a young witch scorned, a dangerous combination that should have given Ron pause). And the final drama, with the Dark Mark hovering over Hogwarts and Harry forced into uncharacteristic passivity while evil struck, was as stark and gripping as an old time radio play.

If you're interesting in re-discovering this older, bardic style of storytelling, take the advice in Lo-tech, Hi-tech ... Mid-tech?. Try out excerpts first and be sure you're getting what you want, that is an abridged or unabridged version. Look through our Listen Up! lineups of audiobooks to see what's available and how well they're narrated, and enjoy what one of our columnists, an early fan of the medium, called 'a different slant on the story, and new pleasure.'
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.