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CRITIC AT LARGE

Speaking of Audiocassettes, Word Spreads

January 19, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Audiocassettes--the non-musical kind dedicated to the glories of the written and then spoken word--are not to be measured against videocassettes as a cultural phenomenon.

But the outpouring of new audiocassette titles is amazing in its variety and its numbers. Spoken cassettes are now the subject of regular and extensive coverage in Publishers Weekly, a good index of their growing importance to the world of books.

The most aggressive publishers are not simply mining their backlists for a new source of additional revenues but releasing audio condensations of important new books virtually day and date with the books themselves. Authors as dissimilar as Louis L'Amour and Bob Woodward receive this flattering treatment. Woodward's CIA expose "Veil" is available on cassette from Simon & Schuster, for example.

I expect that the Sony Walkman and its clones, now much less expensive than they used to be, have been an ingredient in the rising success of the audios, as they have been in the life of the music cassettes.

But you only have to multiply the number of vehicles in Southern California by the average daily commute to get an idea of the potential local market for cassettes. For greater accuracy you could subtract the average number of minutes you need to listen to news radio to confirm that you really are stalled in a major Sigalert.

I discovered audiocassettes nearly three years ago, when radio seemed to be chattering more and more even when it wasn't laying the same insistent commercials on me. (Even a funny commercial resembles a toothache after about the 10th hearing.) Radio wasn't lifting the tedium of the semi-open road the way it should.

It didn't take much listening and reading to find that the audio purists demand the unabridged texts, rented out by Books on Tape in Newport Beach and Recorded Books in Clinton, Md. (the firms best-known to me). The abridgments, I was made to feel, were for the fainthearted.

The abridgments, usually on two cassettes with a hearing time of roughly three hours, are often read by celebrity actors. Roger Moore has recorded several of Sidney Sheldon's novels for Dove Books on Tape, and very expertly, too. Some books condense better than others; mysteries with their subplots and details are hard.

It doesn't take long to form opinions. All art is not created equal and all audiocassettes are not created equal. There are attempts, for instance, to make cassettes into radio dramas, with musical stings and multiple voices. The few that I've heard stretch the tolerance instead of the imagination. I conclude that audiocassettes are for the solo spoken voice.

In fact, it's the expert solo voices who allow the texts themselves to stretch the imagination. I've written before about Walter Zimmerman's readings for Books on Tape of "Moby Dick" (28 hours) and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" (14 hours). It seemed to me that the shape, the symmetries, the nuances of those great, dense works came to the mind with a unique clarity as you listened. At last report, Zimmerman was speaking his way through the vast Christmas pie of Dickens' "Pickwick Papers," which should occupy my commute for more than a month.

The celebrity voices draw mixed reviews, but Julie Christie has done an elegant reading of an abridged "Far From the Madding Crowd" (see adjoining review) and Tammy Grimes a sympathetic version of Henry James' "Daisy Miller."

Jeff Daniels, who co-starred with Mia Farrow in "Purple Rose of Cairo," reads "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" by Harry F. Saint for Simon & Schuster Audioworks. The book is a first-person narrative (ideal for the audiocassette form, of course), and Daniels gives a high-energy and often funny reading, catching exactly the tone of black comedy the author intended. The narrator, a yuppie investment counselor, is made invisible by an explosion at an atomic laboratory.

The difficulties of the invisible life (acquiring food, shelter, love and other necessities) are compounded by the fact that agents are prepared to kill him to keep a top secret secret. The inventions in the story are ingenious, the resonances somber beneath the cat-and-mouse games. And I am led to read the book, which is at least half the name of the audio game.

Authors do not often read their work, or read it well, but John Le Carre, reading for the Canadian firm of Listen for Pleasure, delivers his stories with a versatile expertise no actor could match.

Other celebrity readings are a mixed lot, but the burgeoning field of audiocassettes has by now created its own celebrities, initially unfamiliar voices who come to be prized for their clarity and interest.

Zimmerman has become one such celebrity-reader himself. Jill Masters, who has done "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" among many other works, is another. Frank Muller, who records often for Recorded Books and has done a range of things from Ross Thomas' "Missionary Stew" to Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier," is yet another.

It is an oddly self-effacing kind of celebrity, an art that seeks not to draw attention itself but to let the authors shine forth in their disparate glories. But the readers at their best make listening to audiocassettes a double pleasure, or a triple pleasure if you count the way the freeway down time is being converted to high usefulness.

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