The NAB Blog

AudioBook Reviews

By Nicolas Soames

15 April 2008

How important – how true? – are newspaper/magazine reviews of new audiobooks? After all, they are but one person’s response to a book and its performance.

Since we began, Naxos AudioBooks has received a continuous stream of good reviews, and 2008 has been no different: there have been numerous plaudits worldwide, but particularly in the UK and US.

I have a special interest in reviews for a number of reasons. Before starting Naxos AudioBooks, I was a classical music journalist, mainly writing about music generally but also reviewing the latest CDs for a number of magazines. Now, of course, I am more on the receiving end – but this has given me (I hope!) a balanced perspective.

The leading UK vehicle for classical music CD reviews is Gramophone. It has a worldwide reputation for the authority of its comments, but there are also other magazines – in Germany, France and Japan, for example.

Regrettably, the audiobook world has only one magazine with a similar standing: Audiofile magazine, based in the US and run by its enthusiastic editor Robin Whitten. Its monthly survey of the medium is de rigeur for anyone who listens regularly. But it is mainly the once-a-week newspaper reviews – often just 40 words! – that highlight new recordings for the general public. It is good, of course, that newspapers allot the subject some space, but they hardly touch the breadth and depth of what is going on.

We who love audiobooks know the power of this medium in presenting literature great and small, and we can only mourn the fact that more people don’t know about it. By its very nature, we rarely see the effect it has on its followers.

However, at the Sunday Times Oxford Literature Festival early this month, I did see the effect of the spoken word on an audience of people who mostly, I presume, do not regularly listen. Frankly, when Marcella Riordan and Anton Lesser got up to read the words of Joyce and Milton, the audience was spellbound.

Don’t take my word for it. Here is Susannah Herbert, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times, in her round-up of this year’s Festival:

‘Although it was tempting to treat the festival like a non-stop conversation, even the most argumentative fell into awed silence at the great actor Anton Lesser’s readings from Paradise Lost and Marcella Riordan’s performance of Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses, two highlights from the Naxos AudioBooks strand. Both events took place in the Christ Church upper library – surely the most beautiful book-lined room in Oxford.’

Now, this was more reportage than a review, but it was exactly what happened: the audience reaction was unequivocal, and by the interest shown in the CDs on sale at the end, I think more people now appreciate the magic of audiobooks.

Something else also prompted me to muse on this topic of response and reviews: it was the recent article in The Times – by its regular audiobook correspondent Christina Hardyment – about three recordings of the great medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (You can see the full review on our Gawain page.)

Now, Ms Hardyment is herself a medieval historian – she has written one of the finest biographies of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur – so her response to new recordings of Gawain are of particular interest.

Unlike Malory, who wrote in an English which presents few difficulties to the twenty-first-century ear, Gawain does need a translator; in her article, Ms Hardyment discusses the three audiobook versions now available: Tolkein’s version read by Terry Jones, Benedict Flynn’s new version made for Naxos AudioBooks and read by Jasper Britton, and Simon Armitage’s version read by the poet himself on Faber. It is an exemplary review for it compares both the texts and the performances with particular clarity.

Because Naxos AudioBooks is a label dedicated primarily to the classics, our recordings are often competing with others (take, as a recent example, Cranford, or our Austen and Dickens titles). I am glad to say that much of the time they are matched very favourably (though it would be inelegant to trumpet this too much).

This weekend has in fact been busy for Naxos AudioBooks reviews. In addition to Christina Hardyment’s article in The Times, Sue Arnold was saying nice things in The Guardian about two new Naxos AudioBooks recordings: David Timson’s final volume of the Sherlock Holmes canon (Timson’s portrayal is regarded as ‘brilliant’) and the multi-voice abridgement of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

The bottom line is that it is always pleasing to receive affirmation!

Nicolas Soames

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