Audiobook Reviews December 2016 by Jonathan Lowe


THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE TALKING BOOK might have been titled “The Secret History of” since even spellcheck still wants to correct the word “audiobook,” and even today there still lingers the idea that audiobooks are not books, although the industry is now a billion dollars in sales and growing since many busy people have less time to drop everything and read. Author Matthew Rubery probes not only the history of audiobooks, but sound recording back to Edison. He discusses in a more or less linear way how we got to now from the very beginning, with interesting side stories along the information highway. Audiobooks are still thought of as “cheating,” he says. Not real reading. They are for blind people. At least that is the public perception among those who haven’t tried them. And that’s a hefty percentage of the population, still. If you go on Instagram you will find hundreds of book related accounts, but almost all of them are about print books, mine being a rare exception. But here’s the thing: we’re all stuck in traffic, (which is how the commercial audiobook came to be back in the 1970s.) Some people, including the man who spearheaded the industry, were drivers tired of listening to talk radio and Top 40. They wanted to learn something new, to be entertained, and to exercise their imaginations. You can’t drive or walk or cook or bike (or fill-in-the-blank) while reading a print book accident free. You can’t people watch or scenery watch. But you can get eyestrain, reading in sunlight on the beach. You can cause more trees to be cut down. You can limit your “reading” time to only a few books a year instead of dozens (or over a hundred in my case.) No longer are audiobooks dry reads, but they are read by professional voice actors (like the narrator of this one, Jim Denison.) Some celebrities narrate too, like Brad Pitt or Carrie Fisher or Bryan Cranston or Natalie Portman. In the science book “What Should We Be Worried About,” written by multiple scientists in various fields, one of the major themes is the glorification of ignorance. Americans are reading less, and relying more on what I call “McNews” sites or Youtube and Twitter. Fake experts offering up fake Flat Earth-like “news” (always with popup ads attached) are becoming more prevalent as time goes on, and this is causing people to become lost and to begin to believe anything that makes them feel good, whether it be myopic, jingoistic, or just egotistical. The solution to this mindset is audiobooks, not just print books. They free up time that is otherwise lost to the purpose of education and progress. Rubery’s audiobook version is a good way to become convinced of this, and to give audiobooks a try. Highly recommended and a win/win.


Flashback Thursday: interview of Jonathan Lowe by Jimmy Boegle, formerly of Tucson Weekly

Jonathan Lowe works as a clerk in the forwarding department at the main Tucson post office–and his postal job indirectly helped lead him to his current passion: reviewing audiobooks. About 15 years ago, he had a different postal gig that required a lot of monotonous typing; he chose to pass the time by listening to books. A short-story and poetry writer in his spare time, he eventually merged the writing and the audiobooks. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, he reviews audiobooks for several trucking magazines (Land Line, America Trucking on the Road and The Trucker) and various Web sites like and Cracker Barrel. He recently started producing Audiobooks Today Radio News, a series of about 20 minute-long audiobook stories that air on XM Satellite Radio, with Jeff Davis. He also writes radio drama, articles for magazines, and has published novels, including Postmarked for Death, endorsed by Clive Cussler as “mystery at its best.”

Q) You have statistics saying audiobook sales are skyrocketing. Why do you think that is?

A) I think because people don’t have time to read print books anymore. They’re so busy. Sales of hardcover book sales are down 17.9 percent this year according to Publishers Weekly, while audiobooks are up 17.3 percent. With a print book, you have to drop everything. With an audiobook, you can be gardening or jogging or, most often, driving. It’s just that people don’t have time, but they want to read, so what better way is there than listening? Plus audiobooks today are more sophisticated, with sound effects, multiple readers and major celebrities. They’ve blossomed.

Q) How is reviewing an audiobook different than reviewing a print book?

A) The reader (narrator) brings a completely different experience than reading a print book. In the past, narrators were very dry, just basically reading and getting through the material. Now, it’s an act, a performance. Jim Dale won a Grammy for reading the Harry Potter books; he did the voices of something like 113 different characters. It’s phenomenal what you can do–it’s almost like an audio-only movie.

Q) What makes one audiobook better than another?

A) Ninety percent is the reader (narrator), if he or she is a good fit for the book. It’s how they manipulate (their voice) with inflection, and their ability to interpret characters with accents. A lot of narrators have told me they really study accents to get them right.

Q) What are the best and worst audiobooks you’ve reviewed lately?

A) The best is Seabiscuit. It had an interesting author, Laura Hillenbrand, and I really loved the narrator, too; it was Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s son. As for the worst, well, I reviewed a book by John Saul, a horror writer. It was more from the stupidity of the book than the narration; if the text is horrendous, some books are unredeemable.

Q) Does it ever go the other way–where a good book makes for a bad audiobook?

A) It really depends on the publisher. Certain publishers don’t do well, like Americana, which publishes biographies and mysteries. Their narrators are so bad; they don’t project well, and they don’t do accents well. The sound quality of the recording is off. But with the majority of the publishers, like Random House or Simon & Schuster, you’re not going to find any of that.

Q) You mentioned earlier that some major celebrities narrate audiobooks. Who?

A) Julia Roberts just read a book (The Nanny Diaries). A lot of character actors read. John Grisham just read his first own book–he just basically read it. He didn’t try to do accents or anything.

Q) Some say that big Hollywood stars often do worse on Broadway than unheard of actors who just do live theater, because the stars are out of their element. Is that the same with audiobooks?

A) It is the same thing. I was just talking about Julia Roberts. Everybody knows who she is, and she’s a great screen actress; no question about it. But can she narrate? I don’t think so. Then, have you ever heard of Barbara Rosenblat? She just won the Solo Narration Audie; every year, the Audio Publishers Association chooses the best in the business. I’ve been a judge the last three years; there are about 100 nationwide.

Q) OK, one last question: If we could somehow make an audiobook version of The Weekly every issue, do you think there would be a market for it?

A) You mean other than for blind people? Yeah, maybe, because they’d be without advertisements.

Q) Hmm. That wouldn’t be good for the bottom line.

A) Yeah, I know. You could work advertising in there somewhere, I guess. Actually, some magazines are coming out on CD. (Footnote: One recent addition is Vanity Fair on audio, now a download to smartphones.)

(Note my new blog for literacy:

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