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Books on Tape or Disk
(Books #8, May 2, 2001)

  My mother was always an avid reader, but when her eyesight began to fail, reading was no longer fun for her. She tried using a magnifying glass, and it helped a lot, but the limited field of view soon reduced her reading to newspaper columns and crossword puzzles. She'd still read the Bible, but her recreational reading dropped to almost nothing.
  When Mom is bored she's not easy to get along with, so I began to search for a solution to her reading problem. Remembering the books on tape for the blind, I went to a local bookstore to see if they might have anything of the sort that I could afford. Jackpot! On their shelves were hundreds of books on cassette, each for between six and twelve dollars.
  But these weren't the special tapes for the blind. Those required a special player. These were standard cassettes read by recognized performers. There were titles from current best sellers to classics and vintage radio programs.
  I bought three for Mom for Christmas: a romance, a western, and Cold Sassy Tree. This would be a present that might make a difference.
  When I hadn't heard from her by New Year's Day, I asked her how she liked the books on tape. "They're OK, but I had a little trouble with the cassette player."
  This was typical of Mom, so I asked her again a few weeks later. "Well, they're OK, I guess. But that western! It got pretty racy there in a couple of places."
  It was a good lesson for me: don't try to choose someone else's reading matter. It also reinforced another lesson I'd learned a couple of years earlier. My mother and technology don't mix. I should have seen that one coming. Mom and Dad loved gadgets but were notorious for throwing away the instructions that came with them. At one time Dad had four or five digital watches whose time needed resetting or whose batteries needing changing. Without the instructions it would be a hopeless job.
  But the idea of books on tape was too good to let go; so on one of my trips through Shreveport I borrowed the tapes I'd bought Mom to play on my car cassette player.
  Somewhere before Wichita Falls, Texas, when radio reception began to get cranky, I pushed the western cassette into the player and perked up my ears. I wasn't disappointed. The story was about a woman who was about to lose her ranch to a local banker. She'd heard of a treasure in the mountains nearby. If she could find it before foreclosure she'd be saved. But two unsavory brothers were trying to beat her to the treasure. About then, a tall stranger rode in looking for work. You know the rest of the story.
  And Mom was right. It was pretty racy—when the young ranch owner decided she was in love with the tall stranger, etc., etc.
  For a guy who came up on the daily network radio serials this was perfect, about two hours of good action story to while away some of Texas' most boring miles.
  I changed to Cold Sassy Tree about Tucumcari and it was even better. It was read by Richard Thomas, who did an excellent job with all the book's characters and moods. This set lasted until I got near Albuquerque. The remaining cassette book would be there when I started the trip home.
  Books on cassette had been such a treat that I promised myself I wouldn't travel again without three or four to fill in the FM dead zones.
Borrow, Don't Buy
our library
I started in our county library
  When I got back home I went to our public library and asked about books on tape. If I could check out tapes instead of buying them I could save a lot of money and time. After all, these cassettes weren't cheap.
  "Back in Audiovisual," the clerk said.
  And there they were—books on tape! There were six full-length shelves full; probably several thousand albums. Our library has always been a good one, but I had no idea this section even existed.
audiotape collection
We already had a great collection

  It wasn't long before I was checking out cassettes each week to listen to while driving to work. An abridged novel would last about two days; an unabridged one went for a full week. And at each end of the drive I was left hanging in the story, eagerly awaiting the next side. It made my long drive each day fun.
The Performance Is The Key   Books for the blind had been useful, but besides the need for a special player there was the matter of the performer. In our county a sight-impaired user could special-order a book, which would be read on tape by a volunteer. The readers did the best they could, but it was understandable that after a while the reading became lackluster. Try it sometime; it's boring. Books on cassette were entirely different.
  First, with abridged books, the editor had done an excellent job of selecting his/her significant passages for the performance. Then the script was read by a performer who wasn't an amateur. Some of the readers were quite good, professional actors, really: Richard Crenna, Richard Thomas, Leo McKern, Joe Montagna, etc.
  For me, the key to each book was how well the performer understood and captured the author's meaning and observed his phrasing and punctuation. Since I had read books by many of the authors, any deviation from what I knew his style to be got a scowl from me. Too many scowls and I'd return the book unfinished. The main issue was the proficiency of the reader.
  Men, I discovered, generally read better than women. For some reason it was easier for me to accept a man reading a woman's part than a woman reading a man's. John Guidall, for example, is an excellent book reader, very vocally flexible, but probably not a particularly good actor. He seems to generally understand the inflections put down by the book's author and suggests, rather than forces, an interpretation of the character's voice. On the other hand, C. J. Critt, a woman reader, frequently reads passages incorrectly. Her strident voice and her limited range can do real damage to a book, and has. Her reading of Patricia Cornwell's great novels is barely tolerable.
  Sometimes the book's author is the performer. This works very well in several of Tony Hillerman's novels, and in It Doesn't Take A Hero, by Norman Schwarzkopf. Generally, though, the books employ special readers.
Abridge or Not Abridge...   I enjoy abridged books on cassette a little more than unabridged. They're shorter, for one thing, usually around two or three hours. Also, I believe the editors do an almost perfect job of selecting key passages to include. I also may later read a book if I've heard only an abridged version
  Unabridged books are much longer, eight to even ten hours. That's a long time in the car. If there's a lot of internalization, it's hard to follow the story and to remember who's doing the thinking. On a really good action story, though, unabridged versions may have the edge. From what I see on our library shelves, unabridged books seem to be the favorites.
Everything Isn't So Novel   There are a lot of nonfiction books on cassette, but I seldom use them on trips. I find it too hard to remember the book's details while driving, and that's what nonfiction books are for. Most of the nonfiction cassettes I've listened to have been, mercifully, abridged. There was enough good substance there to keep my interest for about two hours. Any more and I'm sure I wouldn't have finished the book.
  Some interesting things have been tried with nonfiction books on cassette. I remember one particularly: a business news cassette distributed weekly in compressed speech format. This was really a good concept. The business news is compressed in time so a busy executive can listen to thirty minutes of news in twenty minutes or so. Strangely, this idea really works; and for me comprehension of the compressed material is much higher than with standard recording. One odd after-effect, though; after listening to compressed speech, normal speech seems painfully slow. I haven't kept up with what's happened to this format.
compressed speech: an audio recording technique which allows playback speed to be increased without increasing the pitch of the performer's voice. Compression ratios of fifty percent are common, which would allow listening to an hour tape in only a half-hour.
Handling Is Important, Too   Any books-on-cassette producer who thinks his audience is going to listen in the family chaise longue is out of touch with reality; that's for reading books. I tried that. I got my cassette player and an AC adapter. I plugged it in and settled back in my rocker to listen. An hour later I bumped awake and realized I'd slept through the whole side.
  Cassettes work best in the car. It's a dual focus activity (and that's not all good—in heavy traffic or at complex interchanges I turn off the cassette player; it's too distracting) that keeps you wide awake and entertains with something substantive, not ephemeral, like music.
  Handling cassettes while driving is a potential problem. I always rewind three or four cassettes before I start a trip so I don't have to do that in traffic. With abridged books of two to four cassettes this is pretty easy to do. But unabridged books, with as many as twenty cassettes, can be a pain to handle on the road. One of the problems is the type of binder used to distribute the sets. More than once a quick stop has spilled cassettes into a heap on the passenger floorboard. I wish the distributors could think of a better way.
  Occasionally a cassette won't rewind or won't play fully. Hey, that's the nature of the medium. I just eject the cassette and tap it smartly on the dash on each side, held flat. This usually frees it up. When I finish each cassette I return it, upside down, to its binder cell as a sign I've heard it.
  I believe that if books on tape producers really thought about it and designed a total package for easy use in a car, they'd have produced one that works well at home, too.
cassette binder
Cassettes could be easier to handle
CDs are very hard to handle
CD binder

And Now, On Disk...
  With CDs for music, it was only a matter of time before there would be books on CD. There are! I like them; but they are a little problematical.
  First, there aren't many titles available, and they cost a lot. So far I've listened to what our library has, but at over a hundred dollars a title the collection isn't growing very fast. Incidentally, I haven't seen any abridged books on CD yet.
  Second, you've got to have either a car with a built- in CD player or a portable player. I've been using a portable successfully in my car, but it's a kluge of wires and adapters that has to be positioned carefully before a trip. It's only a matter of time before I get picked up for driving with earphones.
  Third, if handling cassettes while driving is tricky, handling CDs is downright dangerous. The binders they're distributed in use flexible plastic sleeves to store the disks. They fit the sleeves tightly, and they tend to grab the sticky sleeve surfaces. It's simply not possible to remove a disk without fingerprinting its sensitive surface, whether driving or not. Dirty disks skip in a particularly annoying way. The librarians say that they have to periodically clean the disks to keep performance acceptable.
  CDs are about an hour long each, which is good. They're divided into tracks of about three minutes, also good; except that on my portable, to return to my track I have to remember its number. When I turn the player off I always forget. I don't believe that's a problem with a built-in CD player.
  In short, I love the idea of books on CD, but I don't believe they're ready for easy travel use yet. I've stopped using them in the car, but I do like them at home...when I can stay awake.
  If you're thinking about getting a portable CD player, you'll find a lot of them out there. Mine cost a little less than $60. It has a 40-second anti-skip feature and a remarkably good AM/FM digital radio. I can play about eight CDs on one pair of AA batteries, which is great!
  Yesterday, one day past its warranty period, the disk section of my player went south. I've now got to decide whether or not to replace it. I'll probably wait a while, until the medium itself is a little better accepted and developed.
Your Library Is The Key   Listening to books on cassette is just right for me for traveling. I've got used to their idiosyncracies, and on a trip they provide what the FM radio usually doesn't—a human voice reading a good story, talking with me. With so many titles available in my library, most on three-week checkout, I'm never without one.
  I could have very little of this listening fun without our public library; and our county has an unusually progressive library system. Our selection of books and books on tape is excellent. I checked for books on tape in the Shreveport, Louisiana library (my mother's) and found only about a dozen titles.
  If your library is a little short, check out interlibrary loans. You can find out more by talking to your librarian, your bookmobile driver, or by checking your library's web site. For an example, see ours at
  When I realized how dependent on our library I'd become I decided to help it stay on top. I joined our "Friends Of The Library" association. Hey! I appreciate my blessings; I'm willing to get involved.

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