By Taffy Cannon
When I first started listening to audio books, I had no particular plan beyond enjoying some of my favorite authors in a new format.
I knew I couldn’t realistically listen to unabridged audio books, because the only place I played these tapes was in my car, and my driving at that point was mostly limited to short trips, car pools, and errands around town. It could take months to finish an unabridged book at that rate.
And yes, I was aware of the wails from purists who insisted that abridgement destroyed the experience by robbing the audio narrative of … well, of much of its narrative.
But at first that didn’t make much difference, and as time passed, I was seeing less and less on the audio shelves of the library that I hadn’t read before. Increasingly I found myself listening to books I had already read before, the old-fashioned way: turning pages in a comfortable chair with good lighting.
Then I noticed something.
To reduce a 350 page book to a ninety-minute audio requires quite a bit of cutting, the kind that authors like to think has been concluded by the time the copyediting process is complete. Making those kinds of cuts slices a narrative to its skeleton. Subplots disappear, minor characters are dropped, description becomes minimal or nonexistent, dialogue is limited to essential that move the plot forward.
What remains is the basic framework of the book.
By listening to abridged audio books, I realized, I was actually working in a way, albeit a somewhat circuitous one. I was studying the framework of successful crime fiction, looking at it from the skeleton outward.
At that point, I started paying much closer attention to how this relentless distillation affected the storytelling itself.
For one thing, all sorts of stuff can be more easily camouflaged in a longer narrative. Red herrings become far more obvious in abridgements because there usually isn’t time to fully develop them amidst the other actions of the narrative. Subplots tantalize because it’s certain they will tie in directly somehow to the main plot line. Furthermore, an active, complicated, and essential conclusion may also take up the better part of the second tape, which leaves a lot less time to set things up.
It’s also a lot harder to hide in plain sight.
There’s not a mystery writer alive who hasn’t disguised a clue in a list at some point, and that kind of detail stands out in an abridged book. Any kind of list or grouping does. Random events that might otherwise be glossed over as part of a character’s daily routine invariably show in sharper relief because in the Land of the Abridged Audio Book, there are precious few transitions from one critical scene to the next. Bam! You’re there.
Idiosyncrasies of the writer’s style are also emphasized, particularly an unhealthy reliance on adverbs or awkward use and nonuse of contractions in dialogue.
The technology has greatly improved since I started listening, of course, though I may have the only vehicle in Southern California which still has a cassette player as its only sound system. I did try listening to books on CDs by plugging an adapter into a Walkman, but the system was cumbersome and I was always losing my place.
Audio cassettes have followed their older cousins—reel-to-reel and eight-track—into the Abyss of Obsolete Sound Systems. Nobody even makes them anymore. I now find myself re-listening to books I’ve heard once or more in the past, and some of those are physically damaged, a fact that generally doesn’t reveal itself until the second tape. One day I may find myself down to my treasured copy of One Fearful Yellow Eye, no longer available in any format.
Then I may just need to get a better sound system. Maybe I’ll even get a newer car. But no matter what the format I listen to, I’m pretty sure it will be abridged. After all this time, most of my audio book listening is still on short trips and errands around town, though the car pool days are blessedly behind me.
So, God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll keep on listening for structure, calling it work as I drive along Pacific Coast Highway watching the surfers.
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