University of Tennessee
I like audio books. I have just finished listening to Huck Finn , a novel I've read probably twenty times during my English major, dissertation, and teaching careers. Yet Norman Dietz's remarkable narrating revealed things about Huck Finn that caused me to think about it differently than before.Early on I read Thomas Harris's potboiler The Silence of the Lambs . I later saw the award-winning movie. Each experience scared me a number of times.Yet Frank Muller's skill at telling the story on tape scared me most of all,even though, from print and movie, I knew what to expect.
Taped novels and nonfiction works are almost always excellently done. Typically the narrators are professional actors who make vocal distinctions among characters, vary their pitch and speed, demonstrate their own involvement with the story, all with consummate skill. Curiously, authors often do less well with their own works. Some writers simply do not read well aloud. Others cannot refrain from editing. I recently saw John Updike read from a published copy of his Brazil . In mid sentence he stopped, took out a fountain pen, made a marginal notation, and then went on. In a public reading that behavior has a kind of charm; on a tape it won't do. You don't find pauses or errors of this sort on books on tape; the companies "proof listen" well.
Adolescent Literature on Tape
Happily, young adult literature is now widely found on cassettes. For teachers or librarians, particularly those who work with less-able or reluctant readers, recorded books offer great opportunities for motivation and instruction. When kids listen to Hatchet , even the purists among us can clearly call it "reading," and we can do with it all that we do with books that are read in print form: analyze plots and characters and themes, evaluate the novel, help students respond to it, etc. But -- and this is important -- we can do so secure in the notion that our students know what the book is about,something we cannot always be certain of with print materials that some students won't or can't read.
In fact, we can do more: we can ask students about the oral reading itself. Is this how you think John or Lorraine would talk in The Pigman ? What does the narrator bring to the character of Archie in The Chocolate War ? How do you like being read to as opposed to reading yourself? Are you more or less engaged? We can set up listening centers where several students at once are able to listen and to respond -- to the tape and to each other. With students who have special needs, particularly those with sight problems, books on cassette open up literature to them in ways that busy teachers seldom have the time to do.
We can use talking books to encourage greater involvement with print versions.We can, for example, play the first tape or two of To Kill A mockingbird , in which narrator Sally Darling completely captures the mature Scout recalling her childhood. Then, once the students are involved, and they will be, we can urge them to read on in the print version. Most will do so. We can also ask them to follow along in their books as the cassette is playing,though I'm less enamored of this technique than are some other teachers. It seems to me that reading and listening are different activities and lead to different interactions with the text.
Let's not conclude, however, that recorded books are for reluctant readers only. Abler students will like books on tape, even those they might not read on their own. Suggest, for instance, that they read the print version of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd and they might resist; get them to listen to the first tape and I'll bet they'll finish it. Possibly my favorite talking book is Conroy's Lords of Discipline , a work I first heard in recorded format. I since have read the printed novel and loved it equally, but, as I suggested, the experiences are different.
Old timers in the YA lit business can remember when publishers seldom produced adolescent novels and did not, as now, have separate editorial and promotional divisions devoted to that level of publishing. So it is with audiobooks, where most companies record mostly adult literature. But one major player in a growing field has committed to taping books intended primarily for young adult audiences: Recorded Books, Inc. This company produces YA novels of, among others, Jean Craighead George, Avi, Gary Paulsen, Cynthia Voigt,Robert Cormier, Beverly Cleary, Virginia Hamilton, Ursula LeGuin, S. E. Hinton,Katherine Paterson, Theodore Taylor, and Paul Zindel. In addition to sending you a catalog (1-800-638-1304), the company also will give you the first tape of a book you and your students may be interested in. You can preview it and decide if you want to rent the rest of the tape.
So -- I'm sold on this wonderful self-indulgence of books on tape. If you already listen, fine. If not, may I suggest for your next car trip you take along the cassette version of Their Eyes Were Watching God or I Heard the Owl Call My Name . Or both; you'll love them.