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The Tangled Mess of Written and Spoken Words

Recently I was gushing with enthusiasm over the world of podcasts and audiobooks. This was a new discovery to me -- everybody else discovered them in 2005.

But you would think that, by this time in life, I would stay guarded in my expectations about any new thing or person. Perhaps I was overenthusiastic over podcasts and audiobooks.

Discovering "History of the English Language" podcast (Kevin Stroud) might have been beginner's luck. Since then I have struck out several times when looking for other "sound media" products.

It is easy to get trapped between the world of written language and the world of spoken language. The gap is pretty big. 

I tried the "History of Spain" podcast, but the guy had such a thick accent that it took too much concentration for night-time listening. His content is excellent; so why didn't they have him write the sound-script for someone else to vocalize?

Sometimes I just can't stand the narrator's voice. Ideally he should be a sonorous baritone of the type who read the radio news in 1940. But the modern young male voice sounds so nambie-pambie.

There are other requirements: the sound volume must be uniform, for good sleeping. The bumper music must be non-startling. And they must avoid the 'frustrated entertainer' syndrome.

But it goes deeper than that. A desk-bound, ink-stained novelist imagines dialog between the two main characters. Then they render it in written prose: 

"I'm going to... to... have your baby,' Ms. A said accusingly to Mr. B. 

"I guess we'll just have to look for a lake to drown you in," Mr. B shrugged indifferently.

Then the audio book vocalizes exactly what was put on the page. It sounds so hokey, stilted, and unnatural.  The audiobook might even use the same voice for both characters!

This constant conversion of spoken language to written language, and then back again! It reminds me of the electrical system of an RV, in which the DC solar output is converted to a pulse-width-modulated hum to charge the battery, which is then converted to 110 Volts-AC, which powers a little black power brick which converts it back to DC to power the electronic module.

Perhaps the way around this conundrum is to choose topics or stories that were part of the Oral Tradition, originally, such as epic tales like "The Odyssey."

Winston Churchill is over-rated, both as an author and a political leader. But his success as an author might have been based on his style of writing: he wrote like a public speaker. He did so not by sitting down at a typewriter, but by walking around the room while vocally dictating the words to a secretary. Therefore an audiobook, made from his written work, might sound good to the ear.

Another trick that could work is to get used to re-playing podcasts or audiobooks. The first time you hear a story you are kept too alert -- you concentrate on it, instead of being soothed, relaxed, and falling asleep.


Ted said…
You usually get what you pay for. With free Librivox audiobooks, for example you have volunteers taking turns narrating, so the first chapter of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” is by an elderly New England lady with quavering voice, the next by a Texsn fellow with thick drawl, and so on. I gave up on those.

My favorites remain the “Great Courses” on Audible, full lecture series by university professors. I can listen to the better ones over and over. Worth the price, to me.
Ted, I haven't tried the Great Courses, yet. Maybe I am just reluctant to surrender one more part of my life to the Bezos empire.

I think I have come to the same conclusion about Librivox: that an audiobook needs a professional narrator to be enjoyable.
Ted said…
Sometimes going with the bigger company is better, regardless of one’s opinion of its founder. In twenty years, should I live that long, I am fairly certain I’ll still have all my ebooks and audiobooks available for download from Amazon. Kobo? Microsoft? Barnes & Noble? Google? No such confidence—Microsoft dumped ebooks for the second time last year, Google has a habit of discontinuing things that aren’t super profitable, I’m amazed that B&N still exists, and Kobo is focused mainly on Canada and other non-US territories so them pulling out of the US market would come as no surprise.

There is, of course, the option of breaking DRM if necessary to store a copy on my own media. Problem is that my awful history of losing stored digital items (media misplaced or unreadable) makes it the very worst option! I have zero confidence that anything stored now would be available to me twenty years from now. ;)