Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Abridged Too Far


I dipped my toe into the audiobook waters, but now I'm thinking of pulling it back out, drying it off and never going in again.

Recently, I bought an audiobook of Black Boy, Richard Wright's 1945 memoir of growing up in the Jim Crow American South. I paid more than $20 USD for it, and I'm disappointed in what I got for the money.
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The news is not all bad. Black Boy was performed back in 1973 by Brock Peters, who is best known for his role as Tom Robinson in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. His reading is mesmerizing and fits perfectly with Richard Wright's powerful prose.
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What's left of the prose, that is. When I was at the bookstore and I saw that the audiobook was abridged, alarm bells should have gone off in the library of my mind, but I sauntered to the cash register without concern. Abridged. So what? A few skillful editorial cuts here and there. No problem, right?
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Wrong. Take away Peters' performance and the audiobook fails on every other level. First of all, the tape starts with Peters reading an anecdote from Richard's early life. The title of the book is not introduced and the author's name goes unmentioned. Second of all, Wright's brilliant and harrowing narrative is spoiled by choppy editing -- it's like they went in there with pruning shears. In addition, not only is the editing choppy, it's clumsy. Later in the audiobook, Richard references something that happens when he was six years old. If I hadn't read an excerpt from Black Boy when I was in college, this reference would have made no sense at all, since the incident was never related in the audiobook, so I imagine that many listeners were puzzled.
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Wright's book is approximately 450 pages long. The 2-tape audiobook clocks in at less than 2 hours and there's almost 3 minutes of dead air at the conclusion. All of this was annoying enough, but to add insult to injury, the audiotape only covers Part 1 of Black Boy, the years that Wright lived in Mississippi. Part 2, "The Horror and the Glory", which details his years in Chicago is completely omitted. That omission isn't mentioned in the packaging; I found it out when I visited Amazon this morning and compared the memoir with what I'd just listened to.
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Black Boy is an amazing work, full of raw anger and power and it deserves better than shoddy treatment. This audiobook needs to be redone by a company who values quality and integrity in all parts of production. Sadly, Brock Peters died in 2005, but there must be a voice actor out there who could do justice to Richard Wright's memoir.
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If it weren't for Brock Peters, I wouldn't waste any time before flinging this audiotape. I'm going to put it aside and do what I should have done in the first place: Find Black Boy in book form, read it properly and steer clear of the audiobook section of the bookstore in the future.

12 comments:

Petty Witter said...

I'm sorry to say audiobokks just aren't for me. I've tried (several times) but to no avail, there is just nothing like holding and smelling an actual book. Book shops and libraries? Heavenly.

Heather said...

Sorry you had such a bad experience. I agree that abridged is not the way to go. They really must introduce the book and then I like when they tell you the chapter number, much easier to keep track of things.

I hope you are planning to contact the publisher. They need to know when a product is a dud.

Isabella said...

I don't blame you for being put off audiobooks. I'm still willing to try, but my rule number one is Unabridged.

Bybee said...

Petty Witter,
Ooooh, that smell. You're so right.

Heather and Isabella,
I had no idea that abridged audiobooks were as bad in their way as their print counterparts. Ugh. I have learned my lesson.

C.B. James said...

I've had similar problems with Audiobooks. I'm probably canceling my subscription to Audible.com next month after several tries.

I have enjoyed many of them. I think the to a good audio book is good editing. Listening to a book is not reading a book, it just can't ever be the same. The best audio books recognize this and either pump up the drama through the use of voices and multiple actors or they get a good editor to cut the story down the way one would do with a movie adaptation.

I've found this works best with children's literature, mystery novels and full-cast adaptations from BBC Radio. Those are the best, in my view.

My second major problem with audiobooks, at least downloadable ones from Audible, is that I can't trade them. They cost the same or more than an actual book, though they are much less costly to produce, and they have no re-sale value.

What's that about?

Eva said...

Son't judge audiobooks based on an abridged version! Just avoid them in the future! :)

A Library Girl said...

Don't give up on audiobooks completely - just give up on abridged audiobooks. I never touch them - I don't like not knowing what's been cut out, since I never know if it's something that I would consider important, even if the person doing the abridging doesn't. I remember being frustrated, back when I lived in a city with a public library that had Overdrive audiobooks, that it wasn't possible to limit those audiobooks by abridged or unabridged (I don't know what it's like now) - even for free, I didn't want to listen to an abridged book.

Heather J. said...

Don't give up on audio books, just on abridged books! (But I can see I'm not the first to share those exact words ...)

Kathrin said...

. Don't give up on audio books per se, just the abridged ones!
I enjoy audiobooks a great deal - when they're unabridged. It's nice to get some more reading time into your day :-)

Bookfool said...

Audiobooks aren't my thing because I have no commute, can't stand earphones and feel obligated to move while I'm listening (because you obviously don't have to sit still, like you do when reading). But . . . in the past I've listened to some good ones. Dick Francis' mysteries are actually good in abridged form. And, I tried to listen to The Three Musketeers unabridged, while driving home from Oklahoma. I had to turn it off because it was making me sleepy. It just depends on the book, I guess, and how well it's edited.

SuziQoregon said...

I have to agree with those who have said don't give up on audiobooks based on an abridged book.

It's simple - Abridged = Not the book as written or meant to be read or heard.

I do most of my audiobook listening when I'm in the car by myself driving around town - therefore in 10-15 minute chunks. I find that ligther books and cozy mysteries are the way to go.

Jenny said...

I disagree with CB saying that listening to a book is not reading a book. If the book is unabridged, it is the same! Reading to oneself (not aloud) is a modern phenomenon. Many books can actually gain something from being read aloud well. Try again, at least once -- just be sure it's the whole book this time!