When Audio Books Jar The Ear

Many times, voice actors hired to record audio books complement the material. But sometimes, when narrators turn to bombast or bad accents, they are a distraction, commentator Nate DiMeo says.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Why read when you can listen? The business of audio books is a booming one. One billion dollars worth of audio books were sold last year. That's 15 percent of all retail dollars in the book business overall.

Part of the appeal of audio books are celebrities. Publishers often hire top-notched voice-over talent, famous stage actors, big name authors, even the occasional movie star. As Nate DiMeo reports, sometimes great literature turns into not so great audio books.

NATE DIMEO: Let's start with the gold standard.

Mr. JIM DALE (Narrator, Harry Potter Series Audio Books): (Reading) "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal. Thank you very much."

DIMEO: Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter series amounts to a 115-hour master class in audio book narration. And not just because of his pleasing tone and delightful Britishness. Dale has mastered the all-to-wear(ph) skill of distinguishing between characters, without relying on whacky voices.

Mr. DALE: (Reading) "You do it then if you're so clever." Ron snarled. Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand and said, "wingardium leviosa."

DIMEO: The guy move so artfully from Ron, to Hermione, to Gilderoy Lockhart. It should be the platonic ideal for all school librarians and bedtime-story readers. And that in essence is what the audio-book listener wants. Someone who'll read them a story, not act out a book. If only more audio-book producers felt that way.

Audio books are bedeviled by gender and race, sort of like a swing-state opinion poll. A hammy female narrator, gruffing down her voice to do a noir tough guy, it's just not intimidating, and there's nothing less sexy than a femme fatale voice by a dude in falsetto.

Unidentified Reader: (Reading) "What did you do there?" she asked. "Nothing to talk to a lady about," Kelly replied. "What makes you think I'm a lady?"

DIMEO: Well, this bad gender bending can be annoying. Racial drag can be offensive. Case in point. Sudhir Venkatesh's well-reviewed book, "Gang Leader for a Day." The sociologist spent a decade in a decaying housing project in Chicago, a world most Americans only from crime statistics or Hollywood stereotypes.

But the audio book is all Hollywood stereotypes. The reader is a white actor named Reg Rogers, and nearly, every character's black. And wisely, he tries to bring a little sound of the street to his reading. And it seems to be a street occupied by a mid-1960 Sidney Poitier.

Mr. REG ROGERS (Narrator, "Gang Leader for a Day" Audio Book): (Reading) "(unintelligible) was challenging my authority, JT answered calmly. I had told him months before he couldn't do his work out there, and he told me he understood. He went back on his word, and I had to do what I had to do."

DIMEO: And so a book that is a probably a great read becomes an audio book that's nearly unlistenable. But mercifully, the last hour is read by the author himself. And Venkatesh is no professional voice actor, so he just reads you a story, without bombaster bad accents. And he reminds you that the people he's writing about are real, and not Hollywood caricatures.

Mr. SUDHIR VENKATESH (Author and Narrator, "Gang Leader For a Day" Audio Book): (Reading "When I asked T-Bone(ph) how he felt about the future, he soberly described his vulnerability as a lieutenant to JT. I'm not protective. That's my main problem, he said.

I got nothing, so I have to be real careful. I mean, I save my money, and I give it to my mom. Like I told you, I want to get my degree and do something else with my life, start a business maybe."

DIMEO: Publishers are increasingly turning to Hollywood, to bring a little star power to these nerdiest of industries. Matt Damon, Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn. Here's Brad Pitt, trying out his Espanol in the audio book of "All The Pretty Horses."

Mr. BRAD PITT (Narrator, "All The Pretty Horses" Audio Book): (Reading) "An old man sat quietly against the wall, watching them. (Spanish spoken), he said. The man blinked. (Spanish spoken), he said."

DIMEO: The skills required to narrate an audio book clearly aren't necessarily the ones that help open a movie. An audio book is not a book. When you curl up with an audio book, there's another person there while you drive to work or walk the dog, who wants to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a guy doing funny voices.

For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

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