Celebrities reading books: Thumbs up or thumbs down?
June 22, 2013
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.
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?