Audiobook

[Audiobook] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Audiobook, Unabridged). Westminster, MD: Books on Tape, 2003. ISBN 0-7366-9320-3.
What an astonishing achievement! Toward the end of the 1990s, Bill Bryson, a successful humorist and travel writer, found himself on a flight across the Pacific and, looking down on the ocean, suddenly realised that he didn't know how it came to be, how it affected the clouds above it, what lived in its depths, or hardly anything else about the world and universe he inhabited, despite having lived in an epoch in which science made unprecedented progress in understanding these and many other things. Shortly thereafter, he embarked upon a three year quest of reading popular science books and histories of science, meeting with their authors and with scientists in numerous fields all around the globe, and trying to sort it all out into a coherent whole.

The result is this stunning book, which neatly packages the essentials of human knowledge about the workings of the universe, along with how we came to know all of these things and the stories of the often fascinating characters who figured it all out, into one lucid, engaging, and frequently funny package. Unlike many popular works, Bryson takes pains to identify what we don't know, of which there is a great deal, not just in glamourous fields like particle physics but in stuffy endeavours such as plant taxonomy. People who find themselves in Bryson's position at the outset—entirely ignorant of science—can, by reading this single work, end up knowing more about more things than even most working scientists who specialise in one narrow field. The scope is encyclopedic: from quantum mechanics and particles to galaxies and cosmology, with chemistry, the origin of life, molecular biology, evolution, genetics, cell biology, paleontology and paleoanthropology, geology, meteorology, and much, much more, all delightfully told, with only rare errors, and with each put into historical context. I like to think of myself as reasonably well informed about science, but as I listened to this audiobook over a period of several weeks on my daily walks, I found that every day, in the 45 to 60 minutes I listened, there was at least one and often several fascinating things of which I was completely unaware.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 17 hours and 48 minutes. The book is read by British narrator Richard Matthews, who imparts an animated and light tone appropriate to the text. He does, however mispronounce the names of several scientists, for example physicists Robert Dicke (whose last name he pronounces “Dick”, as opposed to the correct “Dickey”) and Richard Feynman (“Fane-man” instead of “Fine-man”), and when he attempts to pronounce French names or phrases, his accent is fully as affreux as my own, but these are minor quibbles which hardly detract from an overall magnificent job. If you'd prefer to read the book, it's available in paperback now, and there's an illustrated edition, which I haven't seen. I would probably never have considered this book, figuring I already knew it all, had I not read Hugh Hewitt's encomium to it and excerpts therefrom he included (parts 1, 2, 3).

November 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Caesar, Gaius Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Commentaries. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [ca. 52–51 B.C., ca. 45 B.C.] 2004. ISBN 1-929718-44-6.
This audiobook is an unabridged reading of English translations of Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) and Civil (Commentarii de Bello Civili) wars between 58 and 48 B.C. (The eighth book of the Gallic wars commentary, covering the minor campaigns of 51 B.C., was written by his friend Aulus Hirtius after Caesar's assassination.) The recording is based upon the rather eccentric Rex Warner translation, which is now out of print. In the original Latin text, Caesar always referred to himself in the third person, as “Caesar”. Warner rephrased the text (with the exception of the book written by Hirtius) as a first person narrative. For example, the first sentence of paragraph I.25 of The Gallic Wars:
Caesar primum suo, deinde omnium ex conspectu remotis equis, ut aequato omnium periculo spem fugae tolleret, cohortatus suos proelium commisit.
in Latin, is conventionally translated into English as something like this (from the rather stilted 1869 translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn):
Caesar, having removed out of sight first his own horse, then those of all, that he might make the danger of all equal, and do away with the hope of flight, after encouraging his men, joined battle.
but the Warner translation used here renders this as:
I first of all had my own horse taken out of the way and then the horses of other officers. I wanted the danger to be the same for everyone, and for no one to have any hope of escape by flight. Then I spoke a few words of encouragement to the men before joining battle.   [1:24:17–30]
Now, whatever violence this colloquial translation does to the authenticity of Caesar's spare and eloquent Latin, from a dramatic standpoint it works wonderfully with the animated reading of award-winning narrator Charlton Griffin; the listener has the sense of being across the table in a tavern from GJC as he regales all present with his exploits.

This is “just the facts” war reporting. Caesar viewed this work not as history, but rather the raw material for historians in the future. There is little discussion of grand strategy nor, even in the commentaries on the civil war, the political conflict which provoked the military confrontation between Caesar and Pompey. While these despatches doubtless served as propaganda on Caesar's part, he writes candidly of his own errors and the cost of the defeats they occasioned. (Of course, since these are the only extant accounts of most of these events, there's no way to be sure there isn't some Caesarian spin in his presentation, but since these commentaries were published in Rome, which received independent reports from officers and literate legionaries in Caesar's armies, it's unlikely he would have risked embellishing too much.)

Two passages of unknown length in the final book of the Civil war commentaries have been lost—these are handled by the reader stopping in mid-sentence, with another narrator explaining the gap and the historical consensus of the events in the lost text.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 16 hours and 40 minutes. That's a big investment of time in the details of battles which took place more than two thousand years ago, but I'll confess I found it fascinating, especially since some of the events described took place within sight of where I take the walks on which I listened to this recording over several weeks. An Audio CD edition is available.

August 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Churchill, Winston S. The Birth of Britain. (Audiobook, Unabridged). London: BBC Audiobooks, [1956] 2006. ISBN 978-0-304-36389-6.
This is the first book in Churchill's sprawling four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began work on the history in the 1930s, and by the time he set it aside to go to the Admiralty in 1939, about half a million words had been delivered to his publisher. His wartime service as Prime Minister, postwar writing of the six-volume history The Second World War, and second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955 caused the project to be postponed repeatedly, and it wasn't until 1956–1958, when Churchill was in his 80s, that the work was published. Even sections which existed as print proofs from the 1930s were substantially revised based upon scholarship in the intervening years.

The Birth of Britain covers the period from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. through Richard III's defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. This is very much history in the “kings, battles, and dates” mould; there is little about cultural, intellectual, and technological matters—the influence of the monastic movement, the establishment and growth of universities, and the emergence of guilds barely figure at all in the narrative. But what a grand narrative it is, the work of one of the greatest masters of the language spoken by those whose history he chronicles. In accounts of early periods where original sources are scanty and it isn't necessarily easy to distinguish historical accounts from epics and legends, Churchill takes pains to note this and distinguish his own conclusions from alternative interpretations.

This audiobook is distributed in seven parts, totalling 17 hours. A print edition is available in the UK.

January 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1859] 2005. ISBN 9-62634-359-1.
Like many people whose high school years predated the abolition of western civilisation from the curriculum, I was compelled to read an abridgement of this work for English class, and only revisited it in this audiobook edition let's say…some years afterward. My rather dim memories of the first read was that it was one of the better novels I was forced to read, but my memory of it was tarnished by my life-long aversion to compulsion of every kind. What I only realise now, after fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of listening to this superb unabridged audio edition, is how much injury is done to the masterful prose of Dickens by abridgement. Dickens frequently uses repetition as a literary device, acting like a basso continuo to set a tone of the inexorable playing out of fate. That very repetition is the first thing to go in abridgement, along with lengthy mood-setting descriptive passages, and they are sorely missed. Having now listened to every word Dickens wrote, I don't begrudge a moment I spent doing so—it's worth it.

The novel is narrated or, one might say, performed by British actor Anton Lesser, who adopts different dialects and voice pitches for each character's dialogue. It's a little odd at first to hear French paysans speaking in the accents of rustic Britons, but you quickly get accustomed to it and recognise who's speaking from the voice.

The audible.com download edition is sold in two separate “volumes”: volume 1 (7 hours 17 minutes) and volume 2 (7 hours 28 minutes), each about a 100 megabyte download at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition (12 discs!) is available.

September 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Abridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1776, 1781] 1998. ISBN 9-62634-071-1.
This is the first audiobook to appear in this list, for the excellent reason that it's the first one to which I've ever listened. I've been planning to “get around” to reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall for about twenty-five years, and finally concluded that the likelihood I was going to dive into that million-word-plus opus any time soon was negligible, so why not raise the intellectual content of my regular walks around the village with one of the masterpieces of English prose instead of ratty old podcasts?

The “Volume 1” in the title of this work refers to the two volumes of this audio edition, which is an abridgement of the first three volumes of Gibbon's history, covering the reign of Augustus through the accession of the first barbarian king, Odoacer. Volume 2 abridges the latter three volumes, primarily covering the eastern empire from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Both audio programs are almost eight hours in length, and magnificently read by Philip Madoc, whose voice is strongly reminiscent of Richard Burton's. The abridgements are handled well, with a second narrator, Neville Jason, summarising the material which is being skipped over. Brief orchestral music passages separate major divisions in the text. The whole work is artfully done and a joy to listen to, worthy of the majesty of Gibbon's prose, which is everything I've always heard it to be, from solemn praise for courage and wisdom, thundering condemnation of treason and tyranny, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny descriptions of foibles and folly.

I don't usually read abridged texts—I figure that if the author thought it was worth writing, it's worth my time to read. But given the length of this work (and the fact that most print editions are abridged), it's understandable that the publisher opted for an abridged edition; after all, sixteen hours is a substantial investment of listening time. An Audio CD edition is available. And yes, I'm currently listening to Volume 2.

May 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Abridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1788, 1789] 1998. ISBN 9-62634-122-X.
The “Volume 2” in the title of this work refers to the two volumes of this audiobook edition. This is an abridgement of the final three volumes of Gibbon's history, primarily devoted the eastern empire from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, although the fractious kingdoms of the west, the Crusades, the conquests of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and the origins of the great schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches all figure in this history. I understand why many people read only the first three volumes of Gibbon's masterpiece—the doings of the Byzantine court are, well, byzantine, and the steady litany of centuries of backstabbing, betrayal, intrigue, sedition, self-indulgence, and dissipation can become both tedious and depressing. Although there are are some sharply-worded passages which may have raised eyebrows in the eighteenth century, I did not find Gibbon anywhere near as negative on the influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire as I expected from descriptions of his work by others. The facile claim that “Gibbon blamed the fall of Rome on the Christians” is simply not borne out by his own words.

Please see my comments on Volume 1 for details of the (superb) production values of this seven hour recording. An Audio CD edition is available.

June 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1915] 2003. ISBN 978-9-62634-286-2.
If you're haunted by that recurring nightmare about waking up as a giant insect, this is not the book to read. Me, I have other dreams (although, more recently, mostly about loading out from trade shows and Hackers' conferences that never end—where could those have come from?), so I decided to plunge right into this story. It's really a novella, not a novel—about a hundred pages in a mass-market paperback print edition, but one you won't soon forget. The genius of Kafka is his ability to relate extraordinary events in the most prosaic, deadpan terms. He's not just an omniscient narrator; he is an utterly dispassionate recorder of events, treating banal, bizarre, and impassioned scenes like a camcorder—just what happened. Perhaps Kafka's day job, filling out industrial accident reports for an insurance company, helped to instill the “view from above” so characteristic of his work.

This works extraordinarily well for this dark, dark story. I guess it's safe to say that the genre of people waking up as giant insects and the consequences of that happening was both created and mined out by Kafka in this tale. There are many lessons one can draw from the events described here, some of which do not reflect well upon our species, and others which show that sometimes, even in happy families, what appears to be the most disastrous adversity may actually, even in the face of tragedy, be ultimately liberating. I could write four or five prickly paragraphs about the lessons here for self-reliance, but that's not why you come here. Read the story and draw your own conclusions. I'm amazed that younger sister Grete never agonised over whether she'd inherited the same gene as Gregor. Wouldn't you? And when she stretches her young body in the last line, don't you wonder?

Kafka is notoriously difficult to translate. He uses the structure of the German language to assemble long sentences with a startling surprise in the last few words when you encounter the verb. This is difficult to render into English and other languages which use a subject-verb-object construction in most sentences. Kafka also exploits ambiguities in German which are not translatable to other languages. My German is not (remotely) adequate to read, no less appreciate, Kafka in the original, so translation will have to do for me. Still, even without the nuances in the original, this is a compelling narrative. The story is read by British actor Martin Jarvis, who adopts an ironic tone which is perfect for Kafka's understated prose. Musical transitions separate the chapters.

The audible.com audiobook edition is sold as a single download of 2 hours and 11 minutes, 31 megabytes at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition is available. A variety of print editions are available, as well as this free online edition, which seems to be closer than the original German than that used in this audiobook although, perhaps inevitably, more clumsy in English.

September 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

January 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cęsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book. Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was an adult.

Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical Defects of Mankind.

Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series “Rome” was over the top, if Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.

Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon the historical record in the interest of titillation. He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often, before they became bored and left it to run unattended. But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.

This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16 minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's Commentaries (August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in B.C. and A.D. along with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text. Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available. The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914 are available online.

February 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

May 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

August 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1876] 1995. ISBN 978-157270-307-0.
Having read this book as a kid, I never imagined how much more there was to it, both because of the depth of Mark Twain's prose as perceived by an adult, and due to reading his actual words, free of abridgement for a “juvenile edition”. (Note that the author, in the introduction, explicitly states that he is writing for young people and hence expects his words to reach them unexpurgated, and that they will understand them. I've no doubt that in the epoch in which he wrote them they would. Today, I have my doubts, but there's no question that the more people who are exposed to this self-reliant and enterprising view of childhood, the brighter the future will be for the children of the kids who experience the freedom of a childhood like Tom's, as opposed to those I frequently see wearing crash helmets when riding bicycles with training wheels.)

There is nothing I can possibly add to the existing corpus of commentary on one of the greatest of American novels. Well, maybe this: if you've read an abridged version (and if you read it in grade school, you probably did), then give the original a try. There's a lot of material here which can be easily cut by somebody seeking the “essence” with no sense of the art of story-telling. You may remember the proper way to get rid of warts given a dead cat and a graveyard at midnight, but do you remember all of the other ways of getting rid of warts, their respective incantations, and their merits and demerits? Savour the folklore.

This audiobook is produced and performed by voice actor Patrick Fraley, who adopts a different timbre and dialect for each of the characters in the novel. The audio programme is distributed as a single file, running 7 hours and 42 minutes, with original music between the chapters. Audio CD and numerous print editions are available, of which this one looks like a good choice.

March 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1884] 1999. ISBN 978-0-393-02039-7.
If you've read an abridged or bowdlerised edition of this timeless classic as a child or been deprived of it due to its being deemed politically incorrect by the hacks and morons in charge of education in recent decades, this audiobook is a superb way (better in some ways than a print edition) to appreciate the genius of one the greatest storytellers of all time. This is not your typical narration of a print novel. Voice actor Patrick Fraley assumes a different pitch, timbre, and dialect for each of the characters, making this a performance, not a reading; his wry, ironic tone for Huck's first person narration is spot on.

I, like many readers (among them Ernest Hemingway), found the last part of the book set on the Phelps farm less satisfying than the earlier story, but so great is Mark Twain's genius that, by themselves, these chapters would be a masterwork of the imagination of childhood.

The audio programme is distributed in two files, running 11 hours and 17 minutes, with original music between the chapters and plot interludes. An Audio CD edition is available. If you're looking for a print edition, this is the one to get; it can also serve as an excellent resource to consult as you're listening to the audiobook.

June 2009 Permalink

[Audiobook] Wolfe, Tom. I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Audiobook, Unabridged). New York: Macmillan Audio, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-42444-2.
Thomas Sowell has written, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late”. Tom Wolfe's extensively researched and pitch-perfect account of undergraduate life at an élite U.S. college in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a testament to what happens when the barbarians sneak into the gates of the cloistered cities of academe, gain tenure, and then turn the next generation of “little barbarians” loose into a state of nature, to do what their hormones and whims tell them to.

Our viewpoint into this alien world (which the children and grandchildren of those likely to be reading this chronicle inhabit, if they're lucky [?] enough to go to one of those élite institutions which groom them for entry into the New [or, as it is coming to be called, Ruling] Class at the cost of between a tenth and a quarter of a million dollars, often front-end loaded as debt onto the lucky students just emerging into those years otherwise best spent in accumulating capital to buy a house, start a family, and make the key early year investments in retirement and inheritance for their progeny) is Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina, a Presidential Scholar from the hill country who, by sheer academic excellence, has won a full scholarship to Dupont University, known not only for its academic prestige, but also its formidable basketball team.

Before arriving at Dupont, Charlotte knew precisely who she was, what she wanted, and where she was going. Within days after arriving, she found herself in a bizarre mirror universe where everything she valued (and which the university purported to embody) was mocked by the behaviour of the students, professors, and administrators. Her discoveries are our discoveries of this alien culture which is producing those who will decide our fate in our old age. Worry!

Nobody remotely competes with Tom Wolfe when it comes to imbibing an alien culture, mastering its jargon and patois, and fleshing out the characters who inhabit it. Wolfe's talents are in full ascendance here, and this is a masterpiece of contemporary pedagogic anthropathology. We are doomed!

The audio programme is distributed in four files, running 31 hours and 16 minutes and includes a brief interview with the author at the end. An Audio CD edition is available, as is a paperback print edition.

October 2010 Permalink