Audiobooks

Pick of the week The New Testament

You can lose 80 per cent or more of the original text in an audio abridgement of a substantial novel. Nervous giggles were the response of producers to my innocent suggestion that the percentage of abridgement was marked on the slipcases of audiobooks. Readers speak at an average rate of 150 words a minute. The late Jon Pertwee was famously leisured at 120. Kerry Shale is usefully brisk at 170. That means 9,000 words can be fitted on the average cassette. A two-cassette abridgement could be printed out on 60 pages. A recent magazine cover giveaway of Anthony Trollope audiobooks left only 5 per cent of the lives and loves of the good folk of Barsetshire.

Such travesties of the real thing give all audio abridgements a bad name. But when an abridgement is good it is very, very good, particularly with a first-class reader. In a busy age, many of us just can't find the time to do the reading we'd like: there is a case for saying that looking and listening now gives even well-educated moderns more cultural stimulus than reading. And seen as tasters rather than substitutes, abridgements have an undeniable usefulness.

Most classic literature was after all written to be read aloud. After listening to The Old Testament (Naxos, 8hrs, pounds 16.99) and, The New Testament (Naxos, 8hrs, pounds 16.99), I now have a far more coherent grasp of the Bible than I ever got from going to church. It is read (in the Authorised Version) by a variety of excellent voices (oh God! oh Philip Madoc!) and sensitively abridged "with the intelligent lay reader in mind" by Perry Keenlyside. The New Testament has almost every word of Matthew, only trims repetitions from other gospels, and gives virtually all of the extraordinary Revelations. "I used the Book of Common Prayer as a guide, in order not to omit anything people would miss. It had a knack of picking the best bits!"

Short, powerfully visual novels, these days often written with half an eye on a future screenplay, are well suited to the skilled abridger's lancet. Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (Reed Audio, 3hrs, pounds 7.99) fits comfortably into a two-cassette format; Ger Ryan's heartbreakingly vulnerable voice doubles its emotional effect.

The greater the author, the more controversial the idea of abridgement. "Abridging Austen was like cutting holes in fine lace," says Heather Godwin, whose Emma (Naxos, c4hrs, pounds 8.99) won last year's Talkies award for abridged classic fiction. "I hated the idea of doing it at all - she of all authors ought to be sacrosanct. But I said I'd have a go. And although it was heartbreaking at one level, and it took an incredibly long time, in the end I wasn't ashamed of what I'd done." She describes herself as "filletting" Austen, leaving dialogue intact and trusting the nuances of the reader's voice to substitute for spelt-out descriptions.

Chris Wallis of Watershed Productions says that he found it far easier to hack great chunks from Ivanhoe than to decide which one of every three words of Ben Elton's tightly written Popcorn (Simon & Schuster, 4hrs, pounds 12.99) had to go. He succeeded brilliantly but remains uneasy. "It's quite a short book, but so well-written that every word was working. It's much easier to cut bad books than good ones - sometimes I think I actually improve bad books." Some authors (among them P D James, Len Deighton and Anita Brookner) refuse to allow their books to be abridged for audio. You certainly have a choice: tape versions of many novels, new and old, are available unabridged from such companies as Cover to Cover, Isis and Chivers. But be warned. Besides being pricey, the complete version is not always the best.

It's interesting that we accept the idea of a film or radio dramatisation of a book, however famous, without a murmur. Yet both lose or distort far more of the original than an abridged audiobook does. Arguably, the skills of a good audio abridger are equal to those of a good screenplay writer. David Baldacci's much-hyped Absolute Power is a middling quality thriller in print and a horlicks of wasted talent on the screen. The best of the three versions is in fact the audiobook (Simon & Schuster, 3hrs, pounds 7.99), in which the turgid forensic detail is trimmed and the dramatic action tightened, but the story remains true to itself: the hero dies.

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