Recently, while listening to Louise Erdrich’s 2012 masterpiece The Round House, I was struck by how profoundly the reader’s performance added to my enjoyment of the novel. As someone who listens to books more often than reading them, I appreciate what the performers bring to the story, characters, and mood. Gary Farmer, who read The Round House, adopted the demeanor of 14-year-old protagonist Joe Coutz and his charismatic friends and relatives while allowing Erdrich’s gorgeous writing to speak for itself. Although the book’s excellence would have shone through in a traditional reading, I’m really glad I listened to it.
On the other hand, not all books are meant to be read as audiobooks. One recent example is Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. Because I remembered how much I marveled at the short sentences and episodic structure of McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, I decided to forgo the audiobook and just read the words on the page. This turned out to be a great decision. A few weeks after I’d finished the book, a friend/patron who regularly visits the Bethany Branch and also listens to a lot of audiobooks shared her unfortunate experience listening to TransAtlantic. The reader, she said, made the writing sound choppy, plus, she sounded like she was a teenager, which was so distracting for her that she stopped listening after a couple discs. Disappointed, I suggested she give the book another try, but this time through words on a page, because some books are just meant to be read that way.