But How Does the Book Sound?

From a Times Insider column by Stefano Montali headlined “But How Does the Book Sound?”:

For about a decade, Elena Sheppard has reviewed books, mostly fiction, including several novels for The New York Times. It’s safe to say she knows the art well. But in June, an unexpected request landed in her email inbox.

The query came from Lauren Christensen, the editor who heads up audiobook coverage for The New York Times Book Review. Would Ms. Sheppard, a freelancer who also writes narrative essays and profiles, review the new audiobook of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s “Poems of the Night”?

Ms. Sheppard hadn’t reviewed an audiobook before, but she did listen to them often (“I love celebrity memoirs, but I wouldn’t ever sit and read them,” she said). The Borges project seemed like a natural progression in her skill set, so she took on the assignment.

Ms. Sheppard is one member in the growing pool of Book Review contributors bolstering The Times’s coverage of audiobooks. The results are evident in the Book Review’s Audiobook of the Week column, which launched in August. Recent reviews for the column include Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake” (narrated by Meryl Streep) and Britney Spears’s tell-all memoir, “The Woman in Me” (read by Michelle Williams).

As the global audiobook market grows — it is projected to be worth $39.1 billion by 2032 — the medium is filling the modern landscape of books. “It’s just a completely different experience. It feels like you’re listening to this pure form of oral tradition,” Ms. Christensen said.

But it wasn’t always that way. In 2017, when Ms. Christensen started editing at the Book Review, she and her colleagues still treated audiobooks like a “genre,” she said. Coverage included occasional columns that suggested audiobooks for, say, a day at the beach or a cross-country road trip.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Book Review published audiobook reviews but only every six weeks or so. Not until this summer did Ms. Christensen begin to reimagine what broader audiobook coverage would look like.

To see her vision through required some legwork; the first task involved expanding the pool of reviewers. “One person is only going to gravitate to so many kinds of audiobooks. If we wanted to get as broad a perspective as possible on this landscape, which is as varied as the hardcover one, it made sense to start assigning individual reviews to freelancers,” Ms. Christensen said.

Compared with their traditional counterparts, reviews of audiobooks are generally shorter. When assigning them, Ms. Christensen follows the Book Review’s existing process for finding the right match between a book and a reviewer. Because of their brevity, audiobook reviews are “a great way for me to get to know a new writer before assigning them a larger project,” Ms. Christensen said.

In the case of Borges’s “Poems of the Night,” Ms. Christensen said she “was excited about covering poetry in this form, almost like spoken word.” She had previously worked with Ms. Sheppard, who had reviewed Latin American literature for The Times. Ms. Sheppard’s fluency in Spanish made her well suited for the bilingual book. “It helped immensely that I was able to understand both parts of the text in full,” she said.

When tackling an audiobook, Ms. Sheppard listens to the book while moving through her day — on the subway, at the grocery store — and sets virtual bookmarks at sections that stand out. Then, at her computer, she will listen to the book again in full. “I build the review around the parts that move me the most,” Ms. Sheppard said.

A key departure from the traditional book experience, for both the reader and reviewer, is a third party: the narrator. Publishers choose from a pool of professional narrators, performers and occasionally, celebrities. According to Ms. Sheppard, “the narrator impacts the review deeply.”

“Poems of the Night” is narrated by the actress Juanita Devis; her delivery affected the review. “Borges’s was a book of poetry, so if she had not been so expressive with her voice, it would have been a completely different listening experience,” Ms. Sheppard said.

When listening, Ms. Sheppard added, “part of what I want is the emotion.” In her review, she explained how narration added an extra layer to the listening experience. The “clear and straightforward narration helps the listener to simultaneously appreciate the lyricism and meaning of his verses,” Ms. Sheppard wrote. “But it’s in Spanish that her voice finds added warmth and richness.”

Ms. Christensen is excited about the future of audiobooks and The Times’s coverage of them. “A far greater percentage of books today are produced in audio than in 2017,” she said.

Of audiobooks and their unique storytelling abilities, Mark Haddon, the author of the best-selling book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” perhaps said it best: “I haven’t read a book properly until I’ve had it read to me.”

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