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CRITIC AT LARGE

Heard Any Good Books Lately?

July 15, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

As the Home Tech column declares every Tuesday, audiocassettes continue to be released in volume and in an ever-widening range of contents, from the Bible to Howard Cosell. Start with a novelty and you get an art form.

The novelty was not so much the technology of tape recording itself, which has been around for decades, but the further developments that have made it so portable.

The miniaturized playback machine, hardly larger than a wallet and designed to be heard through light, small earphones, is central to the new audio phenomenon. The fidelity, the presence, is spectacular. The Sony Walkman made the device generic, and the device, along with cassette players in cars, has created a small revolution.

The fact is we are looking more Martian every day, wired for sound, earphones in place, jogging to a different drum with a featherweight philharmonic at our shoulder or on our belt. But at that, it is the post-musical uses of the audiocassette that have become so numerous and intriguing. Not always good, but almost always intriguing.

The book publishers, Bantam in particular, have now gone into the audiocassette line as a source of ancillary revenue but also, it is clear, as a way of cross-plugging the books themselves.

I've lately listened to Louis L'Amour's "A Trail to the West," one of a series of L'Amour short stories featuring Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie.

The best of the tape is a rambling discourse by L'Amour himself on gunfighters, sorting out the facts from the myths but not hurting the myths too severely. L'Amour has done his research, and it shows in the work.

But the dramatization, complete with narrator, several voices, clop-clop sound effects and musical stings or bridges, is simply bad radio revisited. It has a certain quaint amusement, like the nightly replays on KNX of those old radio series. The mind here conjures up not the Old West but the old studio, with actors clustered around a microphone, dropping script pages as they go.

The moral is, I think, that there is no substitute for the authoritative single voice, including the author's if he's up to it. I'd as soon have had L'Amour tell his own tale. Test pilot Chuck Yeager does, on another Bantam cassette that cross-plugs the enormously popular book "Yeager" that he did with Leo Janos.

Erich Segal reads his novel "The Class" on Newman/Dove cassettes, almost three hours' worth. He is very good, even bringing off a reasonably accurate facsimile of Henry Kissinger's German accent. (Real figures weave through the lives of Segal's fictional classmates from what was in fact his own class, Harvard '58.) The events are familiar to the point of banality, but the earnest and unadorned voice of the author is undoubtedly the best way to hear them.

Voice casting is everything, and the first and last lesson of the new audiocassette art form is that great voices, which is to say great actors, produce the best of the form.

I'm not sure, for example, that I've yet heard anything to equal Paul Scofield's reading of an expert abridgement of "David Copperfield," also on Newman/Dove. Without verging near parody or the grotesque, Scofield creates distinctive vocal sketches of the youthful and idealistic Copperfield, the dreadful Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber and the whole Dickensian roster.

I think back on other perfect voice castings: Mason Adams for the short stories of John Cheever, Leo McKern (inevitably) for the further tales of Rumpole of the Bailey, Julie Harris for "Frankenstein." But in fact one of the lessons of cassettes is that recitation is gender neutral, and Geraldine James was the right choice for Paul Scott's "Staying On," his epilogue to "The Raj Quartet."

One of the most ambitious choices for cassette release I've heard is Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King," his fantastical 1959 tale of a rich but profoundly dissatisfied middle-aged American man who takes off to rediscover himself in an Africa even Tarzan couldn't have found. The reading, which is on the Listen for Pleasure label, is by actor Tom Skerritt, light-voiced and not as bombastic as you might have expected, but appropriately quizzical and, in the end, just right to convey the mellowing out of Mr. Henderson.

The stern question is, of course, whether listening to abridgements is a sort of double-dip form of intellectual cheating. The linked question is whether such listening has any usefulness beyond the pleasure it may provide.

By some irony, the unabridged texts I've listened to (Ken Follett's "The Eye of the Needle," Ib Melchoir's "The Order of Battle") each running to something like nine hours, both set up a restlessness. I'd read the books, and in Follett's case had seen the resulting film. It's a strong, fresh text that can be heard uncut by a captive audience.

I await further evidence, but my hunch is that audiocassettes and abridgement are made for each other. Beyond the diversion they can provide while doing something else, like driving, the cassettes are useful samplings of books you might be hard-pressed to find time to read in full. And they may indeed be teasers, leading the listener to the full text, as a reader.

Yet as anyone knows who grew up in the age of radio, the human voice is a wondrous organ, the imagination a palette of infinite possibility, and the cassettes are a fine reintroduction to the world heard but seen only in the mind's eye.

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