The Oldest Form of Entertainment

June is Audiobook Month.

Actor Scott Brick has done a terrific job of narrating the audio versions of all my novels. And Scott very kindly invited me to write a guest blog on the subject of audiobooks. Here’s the text of what I wrote for Scott’s web site:

You may not realize it, but when you listen to an audiobook on the latest twenty-first century electronic device, you’re enjoying literature in its oldest form.

Before Word for Windows, before typewriters, before ball-point pens and even quills, we sat around tribal fires and listened to stories told aloud. The oral tradition of literature goes back to Beowulf, to the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, to even older stories lost in the mists of time.

I delved into that tradition many years ago when I took a college class called Oral Interpretation of Comparative Literature. “Oral interpretation” is a fancy phrase for narrating a story or reading aloud a poem. The art has much in common with acting, but it’s really a separate skill. When Scott Brick and other narrators read a novel for us, they have only their voices with which to convey the story. Although their acting talents include facial expressions and body language, those skills are not on display. Narrators play to the ear alone.

Note that oral interpretation refers to “interpretation” and not “adaptation.” A film adaptation of a novel is a separate work of art entirely. It might add to the novel or take something away. Interpretation, on the other hand, takes away little or nothing. The narrator makes choices about how certain characters sound, but apart from that, you get pretty much the same experience you’d get from reading the book. You hear each word. You paint the scenes in your own mind. (Some folks debate whether you can give yourself credit for reading a book when you listened to it. I say yes, absolutely.)

A well-written, well-narrated story appeals to something ancient in our DNA. During my days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students and local townspeople looked forward each December to a seasonal treat: We’d pack the Paul Green Theatre to hear broadcast professor Earl Wynn read “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Not the stage adaptation, but the novella. Professor Wynn would simply stand at a lectern and hold his audience spellbound. With his voice, he could have held an audience while reading the phone book.

Fortunately, technology has not destroyed this timeless art form, only enhanced it. A good audiobook can cure the frustration of a stop-and-go commute, or expand your mind during an otherwise boring cross-country trip. To appreciate the grand tradition of storytelling, you no longer have to gather the clan around a fire and wait for the elders to chant the legend. All you have to do is press PLAY.


  1. Sandie on June 7, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Well said, Tom I found audio books an invaluable asset when making my LONG commute. I feared that they would be a distraction; a possible safety concern. What I found was when I listened to the book the 2nd time I heard things I did not recall. Then would remember, “Oh that part was while I was going thru that terrible traffic in Memphis”. My attention simply turned off the book, when I needed to concentrate. I concur the narrator can make an excellent story superior. We are blessed you chose a good one. Keep up the good work anxiously awaiting the next novel

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