Audiobooks, nationalities, and accents

Like many people, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I tend not to like listening to fiction, partly because I can get tired of a book, but want to check other things out about it. Sometimes a book has interleaved sections at two different times or two different points of view, and only one of them is interesting. So I want to be able to skip and skim. Fellow writer, I apologize, but you sometimes write just...a...bit...too...much.

An example is the much-praised Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen. The present of the story takes place in a retirement home, where the embittered older character remembers his adventures in the circus during the Depression. The circus sections were pretty good, but the retirement home sections were insanely boring, much like many retirement homes. Since I couldn't just skip them, I gave up on the book, potentially losing whatever there was about it that people really liked.

Narrative nonfiction is the way to go

So I generally go for narrative nonfiction. Michael Lewis and Sarah Vowell books are both great listens. Vowell reads her own, and also gets various performing friends to do the voices and even compose songs for the audio versions.

I've also recently listened to David Wootton's book about the Scientific Revolution, The Invention of Science. Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's account of the British leadership during the American Revolutionary War, The Men Who Lost America, and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's account of the history of Bayesian statistics. The Theory That Wouldn't Die, all worth a listen. If you don't think a book about Bayes' Theorem sounds interesting, then it probably won't be.

Do they need to do the police in different accents?

Do you think these guys are Germans?

Do you think these guys are Germans?

The last two books I listened to were David Quammen's account of the science and the politics and personalities of horizontal gene transfer, The Tangled Tree, and Adam Zamoyski's history of elite paranoia between the Napoleonic Wars and the Revolutions of 1848, Phantom Terror.

Both are excellent books, but the readers of both indulge in something I find extremely irritating: when directly quoted, people who were born in various countries all speak in the stereotyped accents of their nationalities. French, German, and Russian are the most common.

This, despite the fact that much of what is being quoted was written down, or spoken in their own language, or, if not their own, then a language other than English. Most people don't write with an accent. If they are non-native speakers writing in English, their word choices and syntax might reveal that, but that will be in the original, with no need for the reader to add anything.

It doesn't help that one of the readers manages to mangle Russian names and terms even while affecting to talk like a Russian. For what it's worth, I think the French words and names are better.

And what do they think this is adding? A good reader certainly creates voices for various characters. but a stereotyped national accent is scarcely the best way to do that. It makes the whole thing sound like one of those national-stereotype-filled movies from the 1960s set just before the First World War, like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or The Assassination Bureau. Sacre Bleu (which The Simpsons once helpfully subtitled as "Sacred Color Blue")!

I wouldn't have remarked on the accent thing, but it was two books in a row, and, unlike subtitles in a movie, I can't turn it off.

###What do you think about the use of accents in audiobooks?###

Or do you think I'm just too sensitive?