RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This morning we bring you one of our Open Mic segments. That's where we hand the mic to someone that we would usually be interviewing, and let that person put questions to others. Today, our guest correspondent is Neil Gaiman, whose novels include "The Graveyard Book," "Coraline," "American Gods" and "Stardust."
And, Neil Gaiman, welcome to MORNING EDITION. And let me just jump in. I understand you're going to start us off by playing a recording.
Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author): I am. It's a bit old and crackly.
(Soundbite of vintage recording)
Mr. WALT WHITMAN (Poet): America, centre of equal daughters, equal sons, all...
Mr. GAIMAN: That's from 1890, and it's Walt Whitman, and it's his poem "America." So he would've been about 70 years old when he recorded it.
MONTAGNE: I wouldn't have even expected that Walt Whitman was recorded. And I know there must be a reason you decided to play it for us.
Mr. GAIMAN: The main reason I thought we'd play it is the piece that I'm doing is all about audiobooks - and this is the earliest, as far as I know.
MONTAGNE: Do you think writers read their own words differently than someone else might?
Mr. GAIMAN: I think some of us are really good and I think some of us should never be allowed in front of a microphone at all. For me, it's one of the joys and privileges of being a writer, is they let me record my own audiobooks. And it's, in truth, I think the part I enjoy the very, very most.
MONTAGNE: All right then. Why don't we get to it - Neil Gaiman's Open Mic.
Mr. GAIMAN: I grew up in a world where stories were read aloud. My mother read to me. My father and grandparents invented stories. Some of my earliest memories were listening to stories on the radio as a boy in England. I had a record of Beatrice Lillie reading the poems of Edward Lear that I played until it was one long scratch.
Ms. BEATRICE LILLIE: (Reading) �Oh! W! X! Y! Z! What put it into your head To climb up this wall? - my own Darling Mr. Discobbolos?'
Mr. GAIMAN: I read aloud whenever I could. I would read to my sisters if they would sit still long enough. I still remember being played the original 1954 "Under Milk Wood" in English class, and rejoicing in the words and the lilt of the voices.
Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (Reading) To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black. The cobble streets silent�
Mr. GAIMAN: I didn't rediscover spoken-word stories until I was a parent. I would read to my children, and began to supplement that with cassette audiobooks. They made car journeys pass faster, and you knew you had a good one when nobody wanted to get out of the car at the end of a journey.
I was overjoyed the first time one of my publishers let me record one of my own audiobooks, although slightly saddened when she explained that there would soon be no more audiobooks - cassette tape players were vanishing from cars, packaging long books on CD was cost-prohibitive. The audiobook was going to go the way of the dodo.
But the death of the audiobook never happened.
Author David Sedaris records his own audiobooks, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his NPR pieces. When I decided to investigate the world of audiobooks, I started with David.
Mr. DAVID SEDARIS (Author): I'm a huge tapeworm. I think I heard my first one, it was one of those musty ones - you would find them at the library in boxes the size of a suitcase. They were actual tapes - and that's where I first started with audiobooks. I often believe that nobody could appreciate the iPod more than me. I think that it was invented especially for me. I would fight for my iPod. Like, I wouldn't fight for my freedom, but I would fight for my iPod.
Mr. GAIMAN: But audiobooks can vary wildly. The person reading makes all the difference.
Mr. SEDARIS: Like, I hate it when a guy is reading a book and he'll say, there was a knock on the door. It was Rebecca. Well, it's about time, she said. Like, that doesn't sound like a woman - it sounds like a drag queen.
Mr. MARTIN JARVIS: (Reading) The door opened. An attractive young woman walked forward. Hello, she said. What is your name?
I'm really not changing my voice at all.
Mr. GAIMAN: That's Martin Jarvis, an English actor. He's one of the leading readers of audiobooks and has a company that produces them. Martin's read hundreds of audiobooks, been thousands of characters.
Mr. JARVIS: Sometimes I'll call upon an attitude of some of my old teachers. If there's a character of a rather pompous man, I will think of a man called John Branston and you say, may I have a word with you? Or a rather more steely person; there was a teacher, Dick Glen Jones: Come here, Jarvis. I have a bone to pick with you.
Mr. GAIMAN: The process of recording an audiobook is a long one. It takes a good three days to record a medium-sized novel. There are pitfalls you really only discover when you're reading aloud. Inadvertent tongue twisters or clumsy sentences that make you curse the author - which, for me, is me. And then there are other problems. Rick Harris is a longtime audio director.
Mr. RICK HARRIS (Audio Director): There are actors who are just known for their loud stomach noises. The very talented Jerry Orbach came in to do something for me and he had been up playing cards the night before. And I'd say his stomach noises were about as loud as his voice. But we've put, you know, blankets on people's stomachs, you shift mic position, you cope.
Mr. GAIMAN: And you do cope. My original publisher was half right. The cassette did fade away, but the audiobook didn't - until this year and the recession, and competition from electronic books. Sales dropped, although things picked up in the summer. But one part of the market has continued to do well: downloadable audiobooks, books you can listen to on your iPod.
Don Katz is the president of Audible.com, a leading online supplier of spoken word material. He is optimistic.
Mr. DON KATZ (President, Audible.com): Absolutely I think the audiobooks are getting better. The level of sophistication of the narrative formats; the ways that they are interpreted; the variance of kinds of formats; the decisions within the format - it's something that adds a whole layer of experience.
Mr. GAIMAN: Of course, there are those who don't like audiobooks. Critic Harold Bloom said that deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.
I find that astonishingly unconvincing. I think you can have a close and perfectly valid relationship with a text when you hear it. But I've met a lot of people who, when asked if they've read a book, hesitate and say, well, I've listened to it.
So is an audiobook a book? Audio producer Rick Harris again.
Mr. HARRIS: It is not a book. An audiobook is a separate entity. A novel can be seen as many things, and one of the things it can be seen as is a script for an audio performance. But it is another thing; it is an audiobook that has its own validity, its own limitations, its own strengths. The human voice is unquestionably the most expressive musical instrument there is. Combine those two and you get an audiobook.
Mr. GAIMAN: An audiobook is its own thing, a unique medium that goes in through the ear and sometimes leaving you sitting in the driveway to find out how the story is going to end.
MONTAGNE: And that's novelist Neil Gaiman on our Open Mic.
You can practice your listening skills on our Web site, NPR.org, where we have more of Neil's conversation with David Sedaris and Martin Jarvis.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.