How Not to Make an Audio Book

A review of David Rakoff's Fraud on CD

Not long before writing this, I read and reviewed David Rakoff's collection of essays Fraud. I was delighted to discover a 4-CD audio edition, read by the author. Once heard, Rakoff's distinctive voice is unmistakable, and while reading the print edition I could almost hear him reading the essays aloud over my shoulder. So I took the plunge, plunked down my US$25, and bought the audio edition. To my surprise, I discovered that an "audio book" (a bastard neologism if there ever was one) is a different breed of animal than I expected.

What's in an Audio Book

The packaging was simple and effective: a paperboard sleeve that fit around a 4-CD jewel box, with the standard front and back inserts. The CD labels are a model of simplicity: title, author, and disc number in large print, copyright & manufacturing info discreetly small. Why the publisher felt a need to label it a fully digital recording is a minor puzzle; in 1986 that would have meant something, but now it's the norm.

There is one thing missing from the packaging, however: a track listing. It's not on the sleeve, nor the inserts, nor the discs themselves. (When I wrote this, it wasn't on the publisher's Web site either.) From the packaging, the only thing that we can tell the discs contain is "unabridged selections read by the author". That's it. Not which selections, nor how long they run, nor which essay is on which disc. I ordered this through my local independent bookstore; if I'd had a chance to examine it first, I would have thought twice about buying it. "Did they include 'Tokyo Story' and 'I Used to Bank Here, But That Was Long, Long Ago'?" I would have wondered. If they hadn't, I probably wouldn't have bought it. (To their credit, they did include those essays; they comprise the fourth disc. However, the CD jacket's mention of Rakoff impersonating Sigmund Freud could be confusing, as it refers to an essay cut from the audio version.)

When I listened to the discs, I received two more surprises. The first disc is introduced by the author. Actually, "introduced" isn't quite the right word; what he does is read the credits:

Blah Blah Publishing presents selected essays from Fraud, by David Rakoff.

I find this very strange. With one exception, I've never heard a recording that starts with credits. Is this supposed to compensate for the missing track listing? That would be very odd, since that single sentence repeats information on the sleeve, front and back inserts, and each CD. The publisher is mentioned ten times, the track listing zero.

Each essay is introduced by the author reading the title. More compensation, I assume.

Another oddity is how the CDs are divided into tracks. The first CD contains three essays; you might imagine that it has 3 tracks, or perhaps four if they gave the one-sentence introduction its own track. You'd be wrong; the CD has eleven. Eleven? Where did they get that number? Did the producers have a phobia about tracks more than seven minutes long?

Perhaps the book is intended to be heard while people drive. Short tracks have some value here: if you reach your destination before an essay ends, you won't have to listen to start again from the beginning on your next trip. (Note, 2004-01-08: a friend who spends a lot of time on the road listening to audio books confirms this.) Of course, most car CD players will resume where they left off, so this shouldn't be a problem. What is a problem is remembering which essay you were listening to; was "Lush Life" on the second or third disc? It was the third essay on whichever disc, so that should make it the third track, right?

(Fooled ya. It's disc 1, tracks 9-11.)

Perhaps I'm just unfamiliar with the audio book industry. I never did figure out how they could fit books that take me twenty hours to read on eight tapes which last, at most, a dozen hours. Considering how slow reading aloud is, this means huge amounts must be cut. Perhaps once you've descended to that level of literary butchery, making the result useful isn't worth the effort.

The last indignity comes at the end of the fourth disc. Rakoff closes the final essay with reflections on the nature and meaning of memory, and the worth of living only in the present. He speaks softly, choosing his words with the care. He has spent the last hour drawing us into his world, making us question how we live our lives. The final words are spoken, and hang in our minds. Six seconds later, he reads the credits in a loud, bright voice (obviously done in another take), instantly banishing the contemplative mood he's spent the last hour fostering.

How to Record a Reading of a Book

Sigh. Okay, the recording has problems. How could we make it better?

  1. Let one track equal one essay.
  2. List the tracks.
  3. Cut the introductions. Add some silence between the essays to separate them. If you absolutely must include introductions, put them in separate tracks.
  4. Delete the opening and closing credits. That's what the packaging is for.

There's nothing here that couldn't be cured by a few hours with a CD ripper and an audio editor, but I shouldn't have to do extra work to make this a decent recording. In future, if I can't get a track listing, I'm not buying. I'm willing to put up with this once, but not twice.

Track listing: David Rakoff, Fraud

Links lead to recordings at the This American Life Web site. They might differ from those on the CDs and in the book.

Disc 1

Disc 2

  • Tracks 1-6: "Including One Called Hell"
  • Tracks 7-8: "Lather, Rinse, Repeat"
  • Tracks 9-12: "I'll Take the Low Road"

Disc 3

  • Track 1: "I'll Take the Low Road" (conclusion)
  • Tracks 2-9: "Back to the Garden"

Disc 4

Cut from the CDs

Last updated 8 January 2004
All contents ©2002 Mark L. Irons