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Complexity and Contradiction; Reading Audiobooks

September 16, 2011 | by

I am an architecture student who is allergic to The Fountainhead. Can you recommend some books to counter with when well-meaning people, upon hearing that I’m studying architecture, ask whether I like it?

Tell them to read Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, if only for the first sentence: “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.” (I’ve always loved that beginning.) If you’re looking for a novel about passionate architecture students (and what becomes of them), try Peter Stamm’s Seven Years. It’s not as heroic or hot-blooded as The Fountainhead, but it won’t give you hives.

What are your thoughts on audiobooks? I just finished listening to The Fellowship of the Ring as read by Rob Inglis, and his narrative performance—its so much more than a reading—brought the book to life in a way I never thought possible. Its so nice to be read to, isnt it? And yet its so rare. (Theres no denying it: literary readings are often boring; a good writer does not a good reader make.) And the best thing is, you can listen to audiobooks while running, walking, driving, commuting. Why havent books on tape become more mainstream? And, as more of a metaphysical question, can I now consider The Fellowship to be something I’ve “read”?

A friend raised the same question yesterday. She’d just “read” the audiobook of Middlesex—but I say to hell with the scare quotes. If anything, I would guess, you know the text better for having heard it, without the temptation to skim. (But this is only a guess.)

As you say, there is nothing like being read to. And my sense is that audiobooks are in fact very popular. I don’t read that way only because reading by sight is so much faster. But when “Selected Shorts” catches me at home, I can’t turn it off—even if (as sometimes happens) I don’t care much for the story ...

Soon we hope to bring you Paris Review stories as audio files—stay tuned!

Just when I think I have The Paris Review’s sensibility pegged, the magazine surprises me. Would you ever considering doing an Art of Fiction Interview with Cormac McCarthy? I just can’t tell if he’s literary enough for The Paris Review.

Every year or two we ask, and he says no. (Apparently he only talks to Oprah.) But—for you—we’ll ask him again.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.



  1. Paul Ray | September 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I love the Rob Inglis reading of LOTR so much that I rarely read the series anymore (okay, maybe once in a while). I love audiobooks because of the commute and I have discovered that the right narrator (George Guidall) can take books I wouldn’t consider reading and turn them into something I’ll listen to again and again.

    Of course, a bad narrator can take a wonderful book and ruin it.

  2. Literary Man | September 16, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    It seems like an important distinction between fiction and poetry is that poetry is often intended to be read aloud, whereas fiction — possibly since the advent of cinema — trends towards a more “visual” medium. This isn’t to say that listening to a book doesn’t count as having read it; nor does reading poetry lessen the effect of its beauty, as compared to hearing it read.

    Speaking of McCarthy, THE ROAD would be a lesser experience on audio, since so much of the power in McCarthy’s writing is in the visual evocation of his desolate, Eastern Tennessee landscape. Might not hit the brain the same way if someone were reading it to you. There’s probably neuroscientific research to back this up, but, whatever, more power to either method of consuming art.

  3. Paul Ray | September 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    The Road audiobook: An incredible book ruined by a horrible narrator- one who would be better suited for performing audio recordings of appliance instruction manuals.

  4. William | September 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    A sample of Inglis reading from The Hobbit, for those interested:

  5. Paul Ray | September 16, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I’ll up that and offer Guidall reading Borges:

  6. ARTS LOVER | September 16, 2011 at 3:15 pm


  7. GZ | September 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Regarding the audiobook question:

    Being read to is a passive act, whereas reading is the reverse. As a reader, one constructs universes and reconstitutes consciousness. One might make the valid distinction between hearing and listening and it may be that listening does allow for the afformentioned generative process.

    The suggestion that listening would prevent or deter us from skimming a work is however, invalid. There is actually an ever greater danger of falling into passivity while listening and absorbing words like slugs of lead…

    The mediation of the audiobook reader is another troublesome issue. To be very brief: Texts exist at many levels and to add an additional narrator is to make an inherent change in the structure of a particular work. For example: Don Quixote is a work which fictionally purports to be a transcription of a translation of a narrative which also exists within its own constructed world. All of these levels are intrinsic elements of the ‘story’. To add an additional narrator is to change that structure. This won’t seem significant to all readers and won’t apply to every work but true lovers of the art(purists, perhaps)should be wary.

  8. Paul Ray | September 16, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    “To add an additional narrator is to change that structure.”

    Perhaps. If you aren’t paying attention, that is.

    “….but true lovers of the art(purists, perhaps)should be wary.”

    Guidall’s reading of Don Quixote brought me to the book itself. I suppose that immediately disqualifies me from True Lover of the Art status. Oh well. I must carry on, somehow…

  9. GZ | September 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Translation is definitely another potentially problematic mediation which I neglected to mention in my original post.

    Paul Ray: I’m glad for your experience with Quixote but you didn’t understand my comment about ‘lovers of the art’. You are clearly one of these and I only suggested that you be wary. My statement was in no way exclusionary. Perhaps you were not ‘paying attention’? In all seriousness though, I don’t understand your first response to my comment. It seems to me if one is paying very close, critical attention they are more apt to notice the subtleties of fiction, including the way that medium changes it.

  10. Paul Ray | September 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Lover of the Art? What can I say? I’m middlebrow who reads above his station (no snark intended).

    I was paying attention, but it could very well be that I misunderstood you, or only superficially. What I thought you were saying was that in the case of a text that is (this is incredibly simplistic) a “story within a story,” or a text within a text- like a Borges short. With me it is never a problem (currently listening to Borges…read him first though, who-hoo) because I take for granted that the audio narrator and the text (or the prime narrator as the text begins with) are one and the same- inseparable. The only way I could see getting lost, or missing something in some way, was to not pay attention. As I said, you may be referring to something that I am not grasping. Which sadly isn’t a rare occurrence with me.

  11. GZ | September 16, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    The difficulty I was referring to was not one of ‘getting lost’. In the space surrounding the uncertain center of a literary work, the reader is intended (by the author) to occupy a particular orbit. There is no ‘harm’ in altering this arrangement but I prefer to be aware of it. As ‘William’ originally suggested, this is something like a metaphysical concern.

    Now that I think about it, Cervantes was well aware that people were having Quixote read to them and even mentions this in the work.

    ‘Literary Man’ suggested the importance of distinguishing poetry from fiction. In that vein, perhaps the intent of the author should have been the fulcrum of this discussion.

    We middlebrow appreciators of Borges should be grateful for such fleeting camaraderie.

  12. Norman Hills | September 17, 2011 at 11:27 am

    re the architecture student:

    Try the books by Christopher Alexander.

  13. MPK | September 20, 2011 at 8:04 am

    A really wonderful audiobook is the Jim Norton reading of Ulysses. He nails the whole thing, and his performance of the ending to the chapter “Oxen of the Sun” is stunning.

  14. Rita | September 21, 2011 at 6:13 am

    I find with audio books, actually i don’t think that i have listened to an audio book, but i find when i am being read to – other than when Mrs Bridges was read to me, I can drift off after a bit, which i would suggest is the aural version of skimming.

  15. Sadie Stein | September 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

    My brother had a hard time with reading as a kid, and developed an audio book habit that continues to this day…a few that are really wonderful: A MOVEABLE FEAST (James Naughton), THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, HERZOG. (Incidentally, THE FOUNTAINHEAD read by Edward Hermann is *highly* entertaining, to bring things full circle. Intoning, “We will not speak of Henry Cameron!” is enough to send both me and my brother into hysterics.)

  16. audiobooks | October 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

    My brother loved architecture, but only as a hobbies. He started listening to audiobooks in college and that helped him discover what he wanted to do in life because he could actually lkisten to the books while driving around town.

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