Review | The best audiobook narrators are true artists. Let’s celebrate them.
Entertainment

Review | The best audiobook narrators are true artists. Let’s celebrate them.

June is Audiobook Appreciation Month, a time to celebrate the great art of audiobook narration in this, the Golden Age of Audiobooks — as it will be remembered once AI takes over. This month, AudioFile magazine honored three narrators — Dominic Hoffman (“Homegoing,” “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store”), Robert Petkoff (“Barkskins,” “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore”) and Kate Reading (“A Conspiracy in Belgravia,” “Dust”) — with the Golden Voice honor, for their contribution to the “audiobook art form.” It is wonderful to see voice actors, who are often snubbed at the Grammys in favor of celebrities, recognized for their work. As audiobooks have evolved, narrating them has demanded more and more creativity and skill. Transforming the pages of a book into a listening experience goes beyond simply reading aloud, and some people are better at it than others.

Audiobooks began their reign in 1975, the brainchild of former Olympic champion rower Duvall Hecht, founder of Books on Tape. He was specific in his requirements: no abridgments, no emoting, just straight, traditional reading aloud — which still has, for me, an old-fashioned appeal. Soon enough, other companies and products entered the field for better (Recorded Books) or worse (abridgments). Thanks to CDs, and especially streaming, abridgments are now comparatively rare. But the most momentous development has been narrators’ increased engagement with the text, especially fiction, moving from simply reading aloud to an active rendering, akin to interpretation.

Just how a narrator affects the ambiance of a story can be heard in comparing the two audio versions of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series (both from Pottermore Publishing). Jim Dale’s rambunctious, supercharged delivery is what most Americans have heard — and, indeed, is so closely identified with the books that his narration of other high-adventure fantasy novels makes them sound like supplements to the Potter canon. This is startlingly so in his narration of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s “Peter and the Starcatchers” (Brilliance, 8⅔ hours) and John Stephens’s “The Emerald Atlas” (Listening Library, 11⅔ hours). In Britain and Ireland, however, a more restrained Stephen Fry narrated the Potter series (now available in this country). His manner leans toward the snobby, giving more play to the social comedy that arises from the English obsession with social class.

Among the dozens of narrators I admire as true artists, I will mention two: Bahni Turpin and David Aaron Baker. Agile in dialogue, they move smoothly from speaker to speaker, distinguishing among them without giving the impression of “putting on” voices. Both are extraordinarily responsive to the mood of the books they deliver. While Turpin’s voice is always recognizably hers, she tailors it to each book. Narrating, for instance, Colson Whitehead’s harrowing “The Underground Railroad” (Random House, 10¾ hours), her tones are plangent with the horror, gravity and compassion of that novel; but, turn around, and there she is, upbeat and inquisitive, narrating Andrea Beaty’s “Ada Twist and the Perilous Pants” (Dreamscape, 1¼ hours), her voice bouncing with youth and infectious humor.

For his part, David Aaron Baker is a true chameleon, adapting himself so thoroughly to a book that the two become one. He handles the dry, deadpan comedy of Charles Portis’s comic masterpiece “The Dog of the South” (Recorded Books, 8 hours) without blowing it up. Merging his voice with the earnest mind of Ray Midge, the novel’s hapless hero, he captures the young man’s single-mindedness, ingenuousness and incredulity over his errant wife Norma’s baffling desire to have fun — to give a party or join a cycling club.

After listening to that, it is hard to believe that this is the same David Aaron Baker who delivers Leif Enger’s “I Cheerfully Refuse” (Recorded Books, 13¼ hours) with such verisimilitude. Here we have a dystopian vision of a future United States — grim and unrelenting in its descriptions of cruelty and oppression. Miraculously, however, it is told in the voice of a musician, Rainy, a man who refuses to knuckle under and whose tones remain kind and more hopeful than despairing. You could not imagine two more different characters than Ray and Rainy, and yet here they are, fully formed in their voices.

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In earlier days, authors narrating their own books often sounded pretty clunky, so it is a great and joyful surprise to hear the voice of the late Melissa Bank from 1999 reading her own sequence of linked stories, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing.” In celebration of the 25th anniversary of this truly wonderful book, it has been made streamable (Penguin, 9 hours). The stories follow Jane Rosenal from age 14 observing her brother’s romantic misfortunes, on through her own tribulations including an on-and-off relationship with a much older man (we wish she would dump him) and ending with her galling experiment in following a self-help book’s iron-fisted instructions on how to nab a man. Bank’s wry, matter-of-fact tone makes the stories’ many rueful asides, exquisitely funny similes and snappy one-liners all the more effective. But under the humor there is in her voice, as in the stories, a poignant understanding of the ways in which life doesn’t work out — something beyond the grasp of AI.