For the past few years, I have been obsessed with the work of Australian novelist Liane Moriarty. Yes, me and everyone. Since his 2014 blockbuster, “Big Little Lies,” Moriarty has grown into one of the publishing industry’s most trusted hitmakers.
Although his prose is not flashy and his subject matter seems pedestrian – Moriarty writes well-drawn domestic dramas about middle and upper-class commuters – his observations are so precise, the psychology of his characters so well understood that I often find his stories buried deep in my brain and settle there long and noisy. It’s no wonder Hollywood is grabbing its books as fast as it can write them. “Big Little Lies” and its 2018 hit “Nine Perfect Strangers” have been made into limited series for television. Moriarty’s exciting new novel, “Apples Never Fall,” which debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list last month, may also be making its way to a streaming service near you.
But now, a confession: I am doing all this praise on Moriarty having technically never read a word she wrote. Instead, I only listened. The English audiobook versions of her novels are read by Caroline Lee, a narrator whose crystal-clear Australian cadences add to Moriarty’s stories what salt adds to a stew – the necessary depth and dimension. Lee’s voice is an irresistible and visceral joy; like the best audiobook narrators, his delivery is infinitely malleable, moving nimbly through accent, register and tone to create a sense of being inside the story rather than watching from the outside.
I binge “Apples Never Fall” in a day and a half, and when I was done, I started to wonder who deserved the most praise – the writer or the narrator. It’s true that Moriarty’s books are hard to let go, but would I have been so deeply addicted if they hadn’t been cooed by a voice that could make the Federal Register compelling? But if Lee’s storytelling really uplifts Moriarty’s text completely, what about the people who had read the book rather than listening to Lee read it? Hadn’t they missed something crucial?
When the audiobook market started to soar over the last decade, people sometimes wondered if they mattered – that is, when you listened to the book, could you tell that you read it? It was a rather silly metaphysical debate (in the vein of Have you really been to a city if all you have to do is go through its airport? Where If you replace the handle of an ax and then replace its blade, do you have the same ax?), but the question illustrated a deep cultural bias. The audio version of a book was often thought of as a CliffsNotes shortcut. It was acceptable in a pinch; but in terms of cultural value, the audio was somewhere inferior to the real thing in print.
I stand now to free the audiobook from the murky shadow of the text. Audiobooks don’t cheat. They are not just a shortcut to cheap intellectualism. For so many titles in the heyday of audio entertainment, it’s not crazy to ask the opposite: compared to the depth that can be transmitted via audio, does the flat text version matter?
Obviously, there are writers and topics that translate poorly to audio; writers who excel in a kind of textual virtuosity, like David Foster Wallace, are better read than listened to. I also had a hard time listening to dense books, especially technical ones, mainly because audiobooks are often consumed while multitasking. (For me, there are no greater pleasures than cooking while listening to a book.)
Yet there are so many books that reach a resonance through speech that their text alone cannot fully deliver. Listening to a book isn’t just as good as reading it. Sometimes, maybe even often, is better.
For some kind of literary snob, those are fighting words, I know. But let’s consider one of the most popular genres in the publishing industry, memoirs. When read by the author, I noticed that the audio versions of the memoirs sparkle with an authenticity often absent from the text alone. In fact, it’s the rare memory that does not perform better in audio than in text.
A recent fine example is “Greenlights” by actor Matthew McConaughey. As a text his story is discursive and at times indulgent, but as audio, in his weird and overwhelming style of choppy speech, it exemplifies exactly the kind of weirdness that makes him so intriguing as an actor and celebrity. . Listening to “Greenlights”, I realized how much extratextual theater was going on; there is a way in which McConaughey, through his performance, conveys an emotion that is almost entirely absent from his lines.
Recently, I told everyone I know to listen to “The Last Black Unicorn” comedian Tiffany Haddish’s account of her difficult childhood in the childcare system and the many hardships she endured to be successful. in show business. Her story is pretty compelling, but she’s one of the best standing actresses working today, so it’s no surprise that the tragedy and hilarity of her story is accentuated by her performance in the audiobook.
There is a long, tumultuous section in the memoir about her elaborate revenge plot on a boyfriend who had cheated on her; I pity anyone who has only read Haddish’s text, because the way she explains the different parts of her plan made me laugh to tears.
As spoken audio has taken off, the publishing industry and Amazon, whose subsidiary Audible is the dominant force in the audiobook industry, have invested heavily in the medium. Audiobooks now often benefit from high-end production and renowned vocal talents, and there are innovations in digital audio – such as spatially rendered sound, which makes listeners feel like they are surrounded by music. ‘audio – which can turn audiobooks into something like radio dramas.
Yet, as popular as audiobooks have become, I suspect there will remain some dismay over their rise, especially from book lovers who fear that audio will somehow overshadow the ancient holiness. text and print.
But it is a myopic vision. Telling stories, after all, is an even older form of human entertainment than reading and writing stories. Banish any guilt you might have from listening instead of reading. Audio books are nothing to worry about; they do not announce the death of literature on the altar of modern comfort. Rather, their popularity is a sign of the endurance of stories and storytelling.