STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you're a fan of audio books there is a good chance you've heard this voice.
Mr. GEORGE GUIDALL (Narrator of Audio Books): (Reading) I was leaning forward, staring at the tape recorder. When I looked up at Dr. Patel, I saw that she was watching me.
INSKEEP: That's George Guidall who spends a lot of time staring at a tape recorder, perhaps because he has narrated more than 900 audio books -everything from classics like "Don Quixote" and "Swann's Way," to novels by Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen.
And as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, one of Guidall's biggest fans is one of his favorite authors.
LYNN NEARY: Growing up, George Guidall wasn't much of a reader.
Mr. GUIDALL: I hear my mother keep telling me, even now: George you never pick up a book - you just don't read.
NEARY: Now, Guidall never stops reading; on the train, in the doctor's office -but most of all, in the studio. On average, he can read about 50 to 70 pages a day in a studio session. An actor by trade, Guidall has been narrating audio books for about 20 years.
Over time, he says, a relationship develops, not only between the listener and narrator, but also between the narrator and the author.
Mr. GUIDALL: I've often described myself as a literary hermit crab. I scuttle around the currents of literature and find a home in someone's imagined truth. When that imagined truth is my imagined truth, as a person, there is an amazing connection between the author and me. His voice becomes my voice.
Mr. WALLY LAMB (Author, "I Know This Much Is True"): I don't hear George's voice in the room when I'm writing...
Mr. GUIDALL: I hope not.
Mr. LAMB: But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Guidall and bestselling author Wally Lamb have developed a close working relationship, ever since Guidall narrated Lamb's novel "I Know This Much Is True." There were two audio versions of the book and Lamb liked Guidall's narration so much that he requested him for his next novel, "The Hour I First Believed."
A narrator, says Lamb, can make a big difference in the way a reader reacts to an audio book.
Mr. LAMB: Ultimately, I think it's a translation. Everyone once in awhile, I get a package at home and it's the foreign translations of my books, you know, in book form. And, you know, you just sort of have a leap of faith, saying we hope it's a faithful translation. But when I listen to George interpret or translate my work, it's just accurate. It's how I think of the characters as speaking.
NEARY: In this scene from "I Know This Much Is True," Guidall reads the parts of two characters: Dominick Birdsey, whose brother is confined to a mental hospital; and the brother's therapist, an Indian woman named Dr. Patel. Dominick Birdsey has just heard a tape of his brother's therapy session.
Mr. GUIDALL: (as Dominick Birdsey) He's worse. I mean worse than he was when he was at that other place. I mean I was hoping that when you said you'd made some progress today, I was hoping...
That's when I lost it. My chest heaved. My sobs came from nowhere. Dr. Patel handed me her box of tissues. I looked away from her, blew my nose.
I thought when I came in here and saw this Kleenex box, that you had them on, on hand for um, I don't know, hysterical housewives or something - women's whose husbands just dumped them. I mean I feel like a jerk.
(as Dr. Patel): Grief has no gender, Mr. Birdsey, she said.
(as Dominick Birdsey) I took another tissue, blew my nose again. Is that what this is, grief?
(as Dr. Patel) Why wouldn't you grieve, Mr. Birdsey. Your twin brother is, as you said, an abandoned house. If no one is home then someone is missing. So you grieve.
NEARY: Finding a rhythm that will pull listeners in is one of the tricks of narration, says Guidall. The other is creating and sustaining the voices of many characters. Sometimes it's hard to find the right voice.
Guidall remembers working on a very familiar character in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Mr. GUIDALL: Quasimodo had deformed mouth and one tooth, and his jaw was dislocated, and we were searching for a voice for him. And we were doing all kinds of things. We were trying things and nothing was working. So I asked a couple of people who were deciding, to turn away and not look at me in the booth.
And I stuck my finger in my mouth and said: Oh, all that I ever loved. And they turned around and said that sounded great. What was that?
NEARY: Guidall says he thinks of audio books as a new art form, though he acknowledges the form has its critics.
Wally Lamb says he doesn't really care whether his fans read his books in printed form or listen to them. He sees audio books as part of a long tradition.
Mr. LAMB: When you think about history, Mr. Gutenberg came along and suddenly we had the book. But long before that we had the oral traditions. We had storytellers sitting down and weaving a plot and presenting characters.
NEARY: And, says Guidall, that listening experience hasn't really changed much for eons.
Mr. GUIDALL: When the people sat in the cave and the caveman came back and told the story of the hunt of the behemoth, while the saber tooth tigers are outside walking around; now the cave is the SUV, listening to the books while the 18-wheelers go by. So the parallel is still there. There is still the safety and the tribal nature of the people listening to something being told to them.
NEARY: Guidall has no illusions about his own role. It is the writer who is the real storyteller. He is an actor. His role is to bring the words alive. And for him, the biggest thrill is reading words that give him pleasure both on the page and in the studio. Because he knows those are the stories that will be the best experience for both readers and listeners.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.