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Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by those short stories hidden in small 45rpm vinyl records. I remember Alladin, written by Doris Miller, and nicely reworked to wake up the imagination of the listener. Alladin, together with other old records, they were usually piled up somewhere at home, and nobody would care about them. Nobody but this kid. I guess that is a nice metaphor to illustrate how certain parts of the media industry may have turned their backs on audio books. And by audio books I mean properly, fully sound designed pieces of work.
Their power to provoke and stimulate imagination is enormous. Audio books are able to place you somewhere faster than other mediums by being thought provoking. You are an active part of the story. You are deciphering the narrative with your senses, and sound design is the complement to create imaginary textures that add physical evidence to the written words. You might be thinking: How is it possible that such a wonderful production can reach so little people? Good question.
We all know movies are not always as good as books. Books have plenty of space to put us in various situations and describe places by using the language. Words are evocative. They can have plenty of connotations in a small fraction of time. This is why books are still being published, because they are magical in their own way. However, there might exist this perception that audio books could lessen that magic, as sometimes happens with movies. Even worse, that they could distort the author’s original ideas. A couple of years ago I came across this article written by John Colapinto in The New Yorker, where he makes this distinction between the “inner ear” (our intellectual relationship with a text) and the “outer ear” (our senses), quoting the literary critic Harold Bloom. By stating this difference, Bloom tries to convince us that books would always win the battle against audio books. However, I do not see this as a battle. I consider it to be a healthy association, an abstract relationship that awakens our imagination in times where all is so momentary.
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Some streaming/download services allow us to enjoy new and old books in the form of audio. There are new services such as Audible, which represents a great investment in the field of audio books, and there are other companies such as Black Stone Library or Downpour, which compete for similar audiences. It somehow shows there is a market. Yet they contain no sound design. It is this kind of empty layer of reality filled up with a voice in a narrative tone. Don’t get me wrong! It has nothing to do with the voiceover actor or the streaming service. They both do an excellent job, and they deserve praise for what they do. It is more to do with the lack of an aural sentiment, with the coldness of a story being told by one voice only, without any sonic context. It is a good of allowing you to “read” while on the go, but there is no such an ‘imagerial’ evoking of faraway landscapes, exotic smells or awkward relationships. And if there is, it is a very distant one.
BBC are however keeping their audio dramas intact. They continue producing fully sound designed stories that can be enjoyed through their website and podcasts. They even host their own annual awards for their great productions. Also, companies such as Big Finish or Graphic Audio International have a reliable audience demanding their products. Communities gather on places like reddit to share their experiences and keep their medium alive. Yet most of these works are produced with a rather small market in mind. It seems they are only consumed by hardcore fans and casual listeners, but they are never part of our favorite playlists. Music and cinema productions are miles ahead in terms of sales and investments, and that leaves audio books somehow out of the equation.
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Ever since ancient times, stories were told rather than written. Writing is a more modern way of human expression. Stories would be sung, as a means of praising and/or exaltation, and they could certainly be exaggerating the original deed. That may have damaged the reputation of sonically told stories, as well as their fidelity. Yet we are now in a time where adults might need their imagination to be pushed further, as it is nicely put by Claire Armitstead in The Guardian. I can read your mind though: there’s no time to sit down and read anyways. Well, our daily lives, confined in between offices and computers, are crying out for it. We move in the undergrounds, we run in gyms and we buy food in cleverly designed rooms. Audio books can help bring back out that child in us. The one who dreams while walks, runs and shops.