Celebrities reading books: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Donald Sutherland

On Thursday of this week I had to drive to Dallas, a two hour trip each way from my  hometown.

Since I knew I would have some windshield time alone in my car, I decided to download an audio book.  I went to Audible and eventually chose Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea narrated by Donald Sutherland.

First let me say that I am a Hemingway fan, and that The Old Man and the Sea is one of my favorites.  I read it probably once a year on average.

Second, I am a Donald Sutherland fan. I don’t know how many of his movies I have seen.

So on the surface of it, it looked like a match made in heaven.

And maybe it is.

Here is the issue.

The Old Man and the Sea

Because I have developed a curiosity about audio books and am experimenting with the techniques of narration and home audio recording, I have suddenly become acutely aware of the role of narration in the production of an audio book.

Does celebrity narration add to or diminish the experience of the book?

I can see this going several ways.  In the case of a celebrity who narrates her own book, the listener receives a double dose. She bought the book in the first place because she liked the celebrity, and she also got an audio performance by the person with whom she is intrigued.

One step removed from this is the Hemingway-Sutherland combination.  I bought the book because it is one of my favorite classics.  Sutherland’s narration was simply serendipitous.

As I listened, I noticed that I began to get a mental image of Sutherland as he read, almost superimposed on the text.

This is  not a criticism of his narration.  It is fluent and engaging.  But it is as if his personality bled into the story.

I have learned enough recently about audio book narration to know that there are narrators who have carved out a celebrity status of their own. Some of you may be able to call the names of narrators you prefer.

My sense of these creme of the crop narrators is that one skill they have mastered is this.

They can make themselves invisible.

In its purest form, it seems to me, audio book narration is a matter of the narrator standing in the shadows, allowing the story’s essence, not his performance of it, to shine.

One other twist on the topic is the notion of authors narrating their own books.  I have to admit that when I first saw The Old Man and the Sea listed as an audio book in the celebrity narrators section for just a second I thought someone might have made a recording of Hemingway reading it himself. For me that would have been a home run just because I can only imagine what Hemingway would have brought with him.

No one knows a book like the author, so listening to the writer’s own interpretation must add layers to the text.  The way a word stands out here, sinks out of sight there, or the intonation of the author’s voice in a quiet passage, and all sorts of other intimate moments of storytelling would bring a cool slant to the audio book.

What are your thoughts?  Do you like to listen to celebrity narrators?  Do you prefer for the voice artist to be invisible?  Do you listen to authors read their own books?

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Frankly, I would prefer to hear the voice of the author even though he or she might not be nearly as professional. For example, I might pay $11.00 to hear Donald Sutherland read The Old Man and he Sea. I would pay $100 to have a recording of Ernest Hemingway reading it.

    • Me, too. I would love to hear authors read their books, not for the mastery of narration skills, but because it would bring a new insight into what they had in mind with their characters and their stories. I think for the time being I am going to make a point to purchase only audio books that are author-narrated.

  • Sara Marie Hogg

    Interesting point! I know that I cannot hear the distinctive voices of Sam Elliot or Peter Coyote without doing exactly what you did. Instead of enjoying the story, I imagine them reading the script, or acting the dialogue, even if they would be ridiculous in the part. Lauren Bacall used to be another one I could not ignore. Something to think about.

    • Sara, that’s just what I meant. How the narrator becomes invisible is surely a practiced skill that is an art unto itself. Thanks for the comment.

  • jack43

    I’ve had it up to here (I’ll let you image where “here” is) with celebrities. We fawn over celebrities. (That’s what “celebrity” is, isn’t it?) We hang on their every word as though they are wise. (Yeah, right) We elect them to high office. (That’s working out really well, isn’t it?) And, yes, as Caleb observes below, their voices create inescapable images.

    However, unlike Caleb, I wouldn’t necessarily pay to here an author read their own work. I’ve played with that idea and don’t think that anyone would pay anything to hear me read anything. (Well, so far they haven’t). However, there are many fine voice actors. I wrote on my own weblog about my favorite – Brad Crandall. I also have written about the storyteller who inspired me to become one – Dunaway Walker. I’ll bet you’ve heard of neither. They could inspire images in your head, not of the speaker, but of the story. It’s a talent that goes beyond celebrity.

  • Christina Carson

    I don’t care one way or the other. I just want a good reader, because if they are good, the listener will create them as a celebrity of sorts, and the character will have their voice and whatever their voice and nuance suggests. But for the writer it can be truly an asset, for a good reader grows the character, enlivens it even more. I’m not a Robert Parker fan, and I’ll never know if I would have liked his Jessie Stone series or not, because once Tom Selleck played the part in the movie version and was so perfect in it, I will always see and hear Tom Selleck in the Jessie Stone stories, an Parker is the winner in the end. So writer’s pick readers carefully, for listeners will equate the protagonist and the reader, celebrity or not, it can be to your advantage.

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