Saturday, December 4, 2010

Authors on Deck

An article by physicist Lawrence Krauss in today's Wall Street Journal ("The Lies of Science Writing") reminded me to post about some marvelous author reads coming up for Blackstone.

The idea of having authors read their own books is a controversial one in the audiobook business. Sometimes the effect can be splendid, as when T. C. Boyle (Tortilla Curtain, Wild Child and Other Stories), Rick Bragg (Ava's Man, The Most They Ever Had) and David Sedaris, among others, exceed expectations by bringing vividness and warmth to their own creations. In other cases, the results can be disappointing--or even downright disastrous. (I won't names names--all audio publishers have a few of these to their credit--but this unfortunate series of customer comments on Audible gives you an idea of how badly things can go.)

Whenever an agent or book publisher casually remarks, "Oh, by the way, the author is interested in narrating the book..." a lump forms in the pit of my stomach, and I immediately begin thinking of ways to discourage such folly. Writers often live in remote places, far from an appropriate recording venue. Generally a specialized director has be brought in at no small expense. And the process itself can be agonizing--I am familiar with at least one instance of a famous politician who required literally thousands of edits because he couldn't read a whole sentence (no, it wasn't "W") and another case in which a celebrity author didn't make it through her ghost-written autobiography because she couldn't pronounce most of the vocabulary and wasn't familiar with the events and people as related in the book!

When they go well, there are advantages to author reads. You don't have to struggle with research (at least most of the time); there's a natural connect between the text and the reader; and the absence of slickness and polish lends an unforced, authentic feel. In addition, retail outlets are more interested in carrying the audio version if the author reads the book, and you've got a better shot at a Grammy--all the Spoken Word nominations this year went to author reads!

Whatever the joys and hazards, Blackstone is fortunate to have several super author reads coming up, which brings me back to Lawrence Krauss, who will be coming to Blackstone's studios in Ashland later this month to narrate his new book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science, to be released in March of next year. Professor Krauss narrated an abridged version of his book The Physics of Star Trek some years back. He is a gifted, engaging public speaker and a superstar in the world of physics. This will be a lively and authoritative experience for Feynman fans as well as anyone interested in popular science.

Ron Reagan has written a wonderful new book about his father, the former President. Entitled My Father at 100, it's an affectionate look at this remarkable and, in many ways, enigmatic man. Recording sessions were recently completed at Cedar House Audio in Seattle, where Ron lives, and the results are terrific. Regardless of your political persuasion, this will be a intriguing listen. The book hits the stores on January 18th.

Finally, Andre Dubus III arrives in Ashland next week to record Townie: A Memoir. Andre's latest book details his own youth in a small, violence-ridden Massachusetts town and explores the strange relationship with his father that eventually pushed him towards a career in writing and virtually saved his life. Most of you will be familiar with at least the movie version of his best-selling novel, The House of Sand and Fog. If you haven't heard Andre's recording of the book, performed in tandem with his wife, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. It's a wonderful performance--what it lacks in ultimate polish it more than makes up for in utter conviction and total command of the story and characters. I expect that his approach to the story of his own life will be equally, if not more, compelling. Townie: A Memoir pubs at the end of February.


  1. Look forward to hear Quantum Man (am interested in The 4% Universe too). About author reads, I can't stomach them much, unless it's an autobiography (in which case it seems justified.)

  2. The best example I know of an unfortunate author-read book is Go Long! by Jerry Rice. Great guy, very inspiring book, painfully dictated.

    On the other end of the spectrum is Stephen Fry, who is both a brilliant writer and is a master of reading both his own material and that of others.

  3. I've been listening to audio books ever since my commute quadrupled twenty-five years ago. The first several were Twain novels I hadn't read since boyhood. I was hooked. The first book on CD I bought was a series of Richard Feynman lectures. The audio was audible, the material was funny and brilliant, but the production and execution of the piece was odd and poor. Each CD had just one track, and the players of those days (or at least those that I could afford) didn't allow the listener to stop the recording and start again where he left off.

    I am looking forward to listening to "Quantum Man" to make up for that earlier frustration.