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Books on Tape
By G. Hall

Recorded books are really a wonderful development; a delightful invention for book lovers who just don't have enough time to read. Talking books were developed originally for people with long commutes or car journeys, but users have quickly discovered that many other activities are improved when accompanied by a book on tape. Using Walkman equipment, listeners can hike or use a treadmill for exercise, rake leaves, cook or do numerous other chores where one's hands are involved but not one's mind.

Recorded books (also known as books on tape, talking books and audiobooks) are available in both abridged and unabridged format. Unless the listener is really pressed for time, the unabridged books are a much better choice. Why would anyone want to miss any of the precious words of favorite authors, or lose track of the subtleties of plot of favorite novels? Audiobooks can be purchased from booksellers and are available in many libraries. Purchase prices are still high (in the range of U.S. $20 - $50, though prices for abridged versions can be lower). I go through so many books on tape as part of my daily activities that I looked into rental as an alternative.

For a fee, the rental organization will send a recorded book in the mail. After listening, the user inserts the tapes or CD's back in the same box and drops it in a mailbox (this is not such an attractive option outside the U.S., where shipping charges are higher and return postage is not included). Two main U.S. companies providing books on tape or CD's for rental are:

Recorded Books 1-800-638-1304
Books on Tape

Recorded books are also often available from public libraries, which are quickly expanding their selections in response to borrower demand. I have listened to numerous tapes from both the above companies and recommend Recorded Books over Books on Tape. Given an interesting book, the key to quality tapes is the narrator. Recorded Books has the better staff of narrators, who are theater professionals. Good narrators can handle all accents and skillfully differentiate the different characters. The Books on Tape narrators do not do this as well - in their recordings, I have sometimes found it confusing as to just who is speaking.

Some of the Recorded Books narrators are so good that I would be willing to listen to them reading a phone book. One of the many delights of talking books is in hearing the printed word spoken with the correct accent by a skilled speaker. For Anglophiles, there are numerous British books available on tape. Hearing the various English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish accents is a real treat. Below is a sampling of especially good Recorded Books narrators (IMHO of course) and some of their best work in my favorite (Mystery) genre:

Barbara Rosenblat narrating the Elizabeth Peters / Amelia Peabody books and the Dorothy Gilman/Mrs. Pollifax series
Simon Prebble for Dick Francis mysteries;
George Guidall reading Tony Hillerman and Lilian Jackson Braun Cat Who series;
C. J. Crit narrating the Janet Evanovich books - these are truly exceptional;
Davina Porter for the M. C. Beaton / Hamish Macbeth mysteries;
Frank Muller reading Eliot Roosevelt / Eleanor Roosevelt mysteries;
Richard Ferrone for the Stuart Woods books;
Mark Hammer narrating the James Lee Burke novels;
Barbara Caruso for the Edith Buchanan / Britt Montero stories.

Books on tape are also an excellent way for a reader to expand her / his reading horizons. I am a die-hard mystery fan, for whom audiobooks have proven an excellent way to try other genres. I highly recommend the following tapes (all from Recorded Books): Girl with a Pearl Earring, Cold Mountain, Shipping News, Memoirs of a Geisha, Voyage of the Narwhal.

Finally a word or two of warning from someone with experience ... tapes can enliven one's commute; however, they can also distract. Several times I have missed key highway exits while engrossed by a talking book. Since they are also much more interesting than most of our jobs, a person may find herself sitting in the parking lot at work absorbed in listening to a book, rather than going in to start the working day.

My best wishes to anyone just starting to listen to books on tape. The fun is just beginning!
For more discussion of this topic, read Lo-tech, Hi-tech ... Mid-tech? and Listening to Lord of the Rings.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.