Thursday, December 10

Audiobook Debate

Well, in the search for "other things to talk about" until our handmade holiday cards are done, I can muse about audiobooks.

There's a debate about these, has been for a couple years, and it's surprising to see who's on which side of the debate.  It flared up within the periphery of my consciousness when Rebecca got me an Amazon Kindle for a birthday/graduation present last April. I was all excited about it because I figured it was a luxury technology far beyond my reach, so I did some research about what it does, what it requires, what it's capable of, &c.

In this research I discovered one of its features is a voice synthesis program which can "read" aloud the digitized text on the screen. You can choose between a male or female voice, both speaking in an American dialect. The feature is for people who need their hands free, I guess, and can't hold the Kindle to click the Next Page button, or maybe for sightless individuals who can still download books and blogs in this way.

But there's an encampment of audiobook proponents who say that this feature unfairly cuts into their industry. Amazon is not paying for audio rights to these books, just programming the device with an ability to pronounce writing aloud. I think that's a valid concern for the industry, and I confess I didn't even know such rights existed. I know Roy Blount, Jr. is upset at this feature and has spoken against it.

I think he has nothing to worry about, however. If he'd downloaded his own book, Feet on the Street, and listened to it with the Kindle's voice synthesis program, he'd know that in no way is this a viable commercial competition. The program lacks inflection and cannot interpret the rhythm of a piece at all. Sometimes it breaks words into its separate syllables or mispronounces a word entirely. Once--and I've never been able to replicate it--my Kindle started reciting the programming code itself.

I bring up Feet on the Street in particular because I listened to the audiobook version of it. I'm told the abridged version was read by Blount but the unabridged was not, and that's the version we had, and it was read by someone who sounded like the spiritual and cultural opposite of Blount in almost every way. Try to imagine a down-home, backwoods travelogue of New Orleans performed by a young, genteel man fresh out of finishing school, striving to clearly enunciate every word. His soulless rendition of spoken quotes is quite comical. The Kindle would have done a bad job of it, too, but it would have been a different bad job.

As well, the National Federation of the Blind argues in defense of this Kindle feature, such as it is, because it provides access to literature that isn't yet available in Braille or in audiobook format. It kind of sucks to tell someone that, because they're blind, they're not entitled to the newest bestsellers on the market. And of course no one's explicitly saying that (who would dare?), but you can see how an argument against a handy speech synthesis program like this could be construed that way.

On the other hand comes Neil Gaiman's argument, that the audiobook industry needn't feel threatened by the Kindle's voice synthesis program--indeed, it should rally and play up its own strengths. It should explore not just its advantages of a colorful, flavorful voice actor performing a written work, but also what distinguishes audiobooks from print literature. I agree with him on all points: I've enjoyed wonderful audiobooks and developed favorite readers based on their interpretation of the text, a dimensionality not available from simply reading.

This isn't to say I don't like reading: I love it, I love the free reign over visuals I can attribute to my own impression of a book, but I've also come to enjoy listening to a talented recitation of a book.



who are your favorite readers?

Christian said...

I really love Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, read by Elizabeth Sastre. She's an English woman with a lovely, sweet, light voice. Funnily enough, she married an actor from St. Paul.