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Note: This article is originally from 2006. I repost this article from time to time, because these recordings are so enjoyable that anyone interested in Shakespeare should own them.
“We might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare,” says Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “Ideally, of course, Shakespeare should be acted, but since he is now almost invariably poorly directed and inadequately played, it might be better to hear him well than see him badly.” Not being as qualified to judge the quality of current Shakespearean performances as the erudite Bloom, I suffer from a dearth of Shakespeare here in the French countryside.
While we cannot always find such public readings, we can listen to recorded, dramatized versions of the plays, as with this set of Shakespeare’s 38 plays. With a cast of hundreds, most actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, these works come alive through a skillful combination of reading, sound effects and music. As radio used to do when dramatizing works, the Arkangel set gives you the acting and the atmosphere. While one may be a bit irked by the “original” music, a sort of Coltrane-inspired Elizabethan music–why didn’t they use actual music of the period, including that composed for Shakespeare’s plays?–the overall production quality is about as good as it gets. Each play comes in a single CD jewel case containing two or three discs, with an insert containing a synopsis and cast information, and the discs are tracked by act and scene (with a handful of scenes that are split at the end of one CD and the beginning of the next one). When I imported a few of these discs to iTunes, the Gracenote CD Database, which iTunes uses to display track information, showed precise tags for each track, including, in the case of scenes that were split, the precise line numbers for the ends and beginnings.
The quality of these performances is excellent. While the occasional actor or actress sounds less convincing that they should–which may be because these actors are trained for working on the stage, not recording in studios–most of them are top-notch. One is quickly enveloped by the atmosphere, both textual and sonorous, and the plays roll on with astounding energy and verve. The tone is that of radio: not the radio of today, of course, but the time when radio was a source of performance and drama. But there is now “old-time” sound in these productions–they are modern and vibrant.
The recordings use the text of the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, an excellent and very readable edition of the plays. (This edition has thick enough paper to make reading easy, unlike some others, and the texts of the plays are in two columns with notes at the bottom of each page.) While there are some minor changes in the text (listening to King John, I noticed that “God” was replaced by “Heaven” throughout), reading the plays while listening is an enlightening experience. You get the advantage of clearly knowing which character is talking (which can be difficult at times when simply listening), you can see the spelling of unfamiliar words (and check the notes), and you get the emotion and intonation that you miss when only reading. Together, the recordings and printed text provide much more immediate understanding of the works.
At just under $400, this set is expensive, for sure. However, that comes to about $10 per play, and how can you put a value on Shakespeare? For fans of the Bard, or for those interested in discovering his work more deeply, this is a worthy investment. You may want to check and see if your library has this set, at least to sample one play before purchasing, but you really can’t go wrong with actors of this caliber, impeccable production, and a huge, heavy box that will impress your friends.
(Note that there is also a very good set of the plays from the BBC on DVD.)
Posted: 12/20/2011 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: audiobooks, Shakespeare | No Comments »
In addition to being an avid reader of dead-tree books, I’ve succumbed to the audiobook habit. While I read several books a week, I also listen to audiobooks on my iPod, each one generally over a couple of weeks and in short doses. Audiobooks are interesting: they give you a different perspective on reading. Instead of being active, you are passive; you allow the text to enter you instead of working to ingest it. Good readers can bring out the subtleties in a text, and the nuances in characters. (One excellent example that I’ve listen to recently is Matt Dillon’s “performance” of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which brings this book alive in ways I hadn’t expected.)
Digital audiobooks make listening much easier than books on CDs. With quick downloads (from Audible.com or from the iTunes Music Store, you can find a book and start listening now, instead of waiting for the package to arrive with the CDs. No changing discs and no being near a CD player and having to change discs every hour or so; just pop it into your iPod or other digital music player, and start listening.
There are all kinds of audiobooks available digitally: from fiction to history, from science to mysteries, Audible sells more than 30,000 programs (including books, radio shows, interviews, magazines and newspapers). However, there are a few ways that digital audiobooks could be improved, and they are really simple…When you listen to a novel, you don’t want to stop listening just anywhere if you can avoid it. Some books have chapters with titles, or numbers (Chapter 3, for example). But some fiction has either un-named chapters, or no real chapter breaks, just extra line spacing to indicate a “soft break”. When reading a book, you can spot these breaks, and, if you’re tired or need to go do something else, you can read another few pages to get to them. With a digital audiobook, you have no way of knowing where you are, how near a break you are, and, depending on the reader, you may not even notice the breaks.
Audible does have chapter breaks in its files (at least they show up on iPods; I’m not sure about other MP3 players), but these breaks are set at the ends of the original CDs, not the actual chapters of books. So you can skip ahead to the beginning of the next (virtual) CD, or go back to the beginning of the current CD, but not to the beginning of a chapter if you missed part of it. For that, you need to scrub back and try and find where the chapter starts.
It is relatively simple to indicate these chapter breaks in Audible files; it would require a little bit of work on the producer’s end, but it would be the least they could offer users, to improve their listening experience. To do this, the audiobook publisher would have to provide Audible with a time chart, showing exactly when each chapter begins, and Audible would then make their chapter breaks at these points, instead of simply at the ends of the original CDs that they digitize. (Note: as of late 2008, these chapter breaks seem to correspond to actual chapters in books. But it is likely that older books have not been rejiggered with new chapter breaks; they simply have too many books to fix.)
Even if Audible didn’t do this, they could still help listeners by providing a file with these time markers. On an iPod, you could add this to your Notes folder, and view it on the iPod, so you could see when the current chapter ends, or use it to find the time for the beginning of a chapter when you need to go back. (This would be especially useful if you press the wrong button and lose your place, and have to scrub through the audiobook to find where you were.) This, again, would require that publishers provide these time charts, but this is a simple task. (However, anyone who’s ever worked in the publishing industry knows how hard it is to get “simple tasks” accomplished…)
So that’s what novels need, but what about non-fiction? I’m currently listening to a history book which has “further reading” recommendations sprinkled throughout the text. I can’t always stop and note the names of these books, some of which interest me, so why can’t Audible provide a PDF file with these books? They really should do this for any book that has a bibliography, book list or even notes. (Books that have footnotes may have the footnotes read, but endnotes are always ignored.)
And what about maps, charts and photos? All these elements are part of the “reading” experience, and audiobook listeners just have to do without them.
Again, the onus is on the publishers, who don’t provide such information with books on CD; this is not a digital-only problem, but one that affects audiobooks in general. Most books on CD have no such notes, and, for some non-fiction books, there may be dozens of pages of notes and other non-text elements that listeners might want to refer to. Again, a PDF file costs next to nothing to prepare–the publisher can simply create it from the original page layout of the book. Including this an an audio CD is simple (using a multi-session CD), and it is simple for Audible to offer such files for download. Just as the iTunes Music Store includes digital booklets with many albums, Audible should do the same with books that merit such information.
Audiobooks are an excellent way to “read”, but they fall short in many ways. The problem with digital audibooks is simply that purveyors of this content merely reproduce the original CDs, without thinking of what they can do to make their products unique. Chapters, bibliographies and notes are not rocket-science, and could incite users to buy audiobooks for more than just novels and hot non-fiction. I’m sure some readers shy away from audiobooks on certain subjects because of the lack of bibliographies and notes. It’s time to take audiobooks to the next generation and use existing technologies to make them even better.
See some interesting comments about this article at Aldoblog
Posted: 11/25/2008 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes Tags: audiobooks | No Comments »
If you listen to audiobooks, and purchase or borrow them on CD, you’ll probably want to import them into iTunes so you can listen on your iPod, or your computer. It’s so much easier to listen to audiobooks on digital devices; you don’t need to carry around all the CDs, and you can stop listening whenever you want, yet still keep your place. Using an iPod–or another digital music player–for this is easy, and with iTunes, you can import your audiobooks in the format you want, and prepare them for listening with very little work.
However, you need to be aware of certain settings, and there are a couple of tricks that can make listening to audiobooks on an iPod much easier. Read on to find out how to do this.Prelude: Choosing how You Want to Listen
Before you begin, you need to be aware that there are several ways to listen to digital audiobooks, and you need to make some choices before you starting ripping, or importing, your CDs. Bear in mind that these are choices you will generally only make once; the next time you import an audiobook, you’ll probably not change your procedure.
Note that audiobooks ripped in this manner will not show up in iTunes’ or the iPod’s Audiobooks menus. That involves tweaking the files a bit, and, frankly, is not always worth the headache (especially since there are bugs on iPods regarding bookmarking these files). I’ll follow up soon with another article covering those questions.
First, you need to decide whether you will listen only on your computer or with an iPod, or whether you may want to listen on other digital devices, or even burn MP3 CDs to use in a car or home player. This affects your choice of importing format (see step 1). If you are happy with your iPod, you can use AAC format, which is the default format that iTunes uses. If you may want to use the files you import with other devices, you should choose MP3, which is more widely supported.
Second, you must decide whether you will be content with multiple files for each book, or whether you want to join them to make fewer, larger files. With iTunes, you can join all the files on each CD, which does reduce the number of files you end up with. In most cases, the difference is moot; in fact, it may be easier to have multiple files, since you can put just part of a book on your iPod, if you’re tight on space. Step 2 looks at these choices.
Step 1: iTunes Importing Settings
iTunes is set, by default, to import music files from CDs. When you import audiobooks, you may want to change the settings, since spoken word recordings don’t need the same quality as music, and since you may not want your audiobooks to take up much space. Since audiobooks cover several CDs–most books run from about 10 to 20 CDs–it’s easy to fill up a small iPod if you use the same settings as you do for music.
One hour of music, at iTunes’ default bit rate of 128 kbps, takes up about 56 MB. This means that a ten-hour book, at this importing setting, would take up 560 MB. This is no problem if you have an 80 GB iPod, but if you have an iPod nano or shuffle, you won’t have much room for anything else. And longer books, which are common, will fill your iPod much too quickly. Since voice recordings don’t need the same quality settings, you can save space by using a lower bit rate (the bit rate is what determines the sound quality, and the size of the files is relative to the bit rate).
As I said above, iTunes uses a default bit rate of 128 kbps, and this is in stereo; spoken word recordings, which cover a narrower range of frequencies (the voice is much more limited in its frequncey range than any musical instrument) can get by with much less. In addition, you don’t need to use stereo for most audiobooks: only those recordings with multiple voices where you have a “soundstage”, or voices in different locations, need stereo. (You might want stereo for recordings of plays, or for full-cast recordings.) So, for your audiobooks, mono is fine.
As for the actual bit rate, this depends on whether you are tight on space. I tend to use 48 kbps for my audiobooks; this is a good compromise between size and quality. Since this is in mono, it is the equivalent of 96 kbps in stereo. You could use a higher bit rate, such as 64 kbps (which equals 128 kbps in stereo) if you want better quality sound; you could even go higher if you want, but you certainly won’t hear the difference. (If you are familiar with Audible.com’s file formats, 32 kbps is the equivalent of Audible’s format 4.) Note, also, that AAC files sound better at lower bit rates than MP3 files, so that 48 kbps AAC file setting I use is probably as good as 64 kbps MP3.
Now, you may be confused by all these numbers and acronyms. If so, I’m going to recommend simply that you use 48 kbps in either AAC or MP3 format. Remember earlier, when I said your choice of format depends on what devices you plan to use? Here’s where you make your choice. If you only plan to use an iPod, or your computer, choose AAC; if you plan to, or think you may want to, use other devices, choose MP3.
To change the iTunes importing settings, choose iTunes preferences from the iTunes menu (if you’re using a Mac), or from the Edit menu (if you use Windows). Click the Advanced tab, then Importing to view these settings. To change the settings, first select the Import Using menu; here’s where you can choose AAC or MP3 (don’t worry about the other formats; you don’t want to use them for audiobooks). Select the one you want. Next, click the Setting menu and choose Custom. Here is where you select the bit rate and other settings. Choose your bit rate: let’s assume you agree with me and want to use 48 kbps. In this case, counter-intuitively, you must choose 96 kbps. Why do you do this? Because you’ll next choose Mono from the Channels menu, which halves the bit rate to 48. Finally, if you’ve selected AAC as your importing format, check Optimize for Voice–this is only available for AAC, and optimizes the encoding for the frequencies in voices, ignoring anything that’s too high or too low. Click OK, then OK again to save these settings.
(Note: when you want to import music again, you’ll need to change the settings back to your music settings. Not what settings you use so you don’t forget; unfortunately, there’s no way to save presets for importing settings.)
Step 2: Preparing CDs for Importing
Now that you’ve chosen which settings you want to use, it’s time to insert a CD into your computer and prepare to import the first disc. You’ll probably have noticed that, when you insert a CD, iTunes displays the name of the CD, the artist, the song names, etc. In principle. This works because iTunes checks and Internet database for track information, but for most audiobooks, you’ll see nothing more than Track 1, Track 2, etc. (One notable exception is Naxos audiobooks, where you’ll get actual track info, such as the names of chapters or the first words of each section. Some other audiobooks may find this information, but most won’t.) Because of this, you need to label, or tag your files, and the best time to do it is now, before you import your CDs.
There are several reasons for tagging files: you want to mark the name of the book and author, and you also want to indicate disc numbers, which is important when you listen to books, to ensure that the files stay in order. To do this, select all the files on the CD (Command-A on Mac, Control-A on Windows), then press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows) to display a window where you can edit tags for all the files. I enter the book’s title in the Album field, and the author in the Artist field. I also enter a genre; you can use Audiobooks or Spoken Word, or whatever you want. Just type in any genre you want to use. One other item that’s important is to enter the disc number; enter, for example, disc 1 of 10 (or simply disc 1) in the appropriate fields. When you have finished, click OK to save this information. Now, when iTunes imports the disc, it will save the files with the information you have entered.
Another thing to consider is whether you want to import all these files individually, or import the entire CD as a single file. If you do the former, you may end up with hundreds of files for any given book; the latter gives you as many files as you have CDs. Since you can set iTunes to remember your playback position (see Step 3), one file per CD is a good choice. But if you’re ripping for other players, you might not want to do this. To join tracks, just select all the tracks on the CD, then select Advanced > Join CD Tracks. You’ll see in the iTunes window that a bracket forms around the tracks, showing they are joined.
When you’re ready, click the Import CD button at the bottom of iTunes’ window. This will take a few minutes per CD. When you’ve finished the first CD, eject it, then insert another CD, tag the files, join the tracks if you want, and import. Repeat until you’ve ripped all the CDs.
Step 3: After Importing
So, now that you’ve imported all your CDs (which may take a while for long books), there are a couple more things you need to do to make it easier to listen to your books. First, find all the CDs; if you’ve tagged them correctly, this should be easy. Click the Music icon in the iTunes Source list (at the top left of the window), and, if you don’t see a two-or three column browser at the top of the iTunes window, select View > Show Browser. Next, find the artist (which is the author’s name, if you’ve followed my advice), and click that name. You’ll see all the files you’re ripped for this author; if you have more than one book by the author, click the book’s name in the Album column, and you’ll see only those files in the main section of the iTunes window.
You may want to change the names of the files; if you have joined them, they’ll show with names that are probably not very useful. So click one file to select it, then press Enter; the name will be highlighted. Type a name, such as Bleak House 1, for the first file of Bleak House. Do the same for the other files, so you know which is which. You don’t have to do this, especially if you follow the smart playlist instructions in Step 5, but it really is better to know what the files are and where they fit. (You might want to use number such as 01, 02, etc, because, if not, some players might not sort the files correctly if there are more than ten of them.)
Next, select all the files, and press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows). You’ve seen this info window before; what you want to do now is change two settings at the bottom of the window. Look for Remember Position, and select Yes from its menu; look for Skip when Shuffling, and select Yes. Then click OK.
The first setting, Remember Position, tells iTunes or your iPod to “bookmark” your file, or record the place where you leave off when you stop listening. This means that you can stop at any time, listen to something else, then come back to where you were. The second tells iTunes and the iPod to not add these files when you use shuffle playback; it’s clear that you don’t want to listen to your books in random order.
Step 4: Listening to Your Book
Now, you can listen to your book in one of several ways. You can navigate on your iPod, or in iTunes, finding the book by Artist (the author) or Album (the title) and play a selected file. But you have to remember the last file you listened to if you do this; for this reason, using one file per CD can be easier. However, using iTunes’ smart playlists, there’s an even easier way to do this.
Smart playlists let you set up rules for finding files in iTunes and on your iPod. Any files that match these conditions get added to the playlist; you don’t have to add files manually. Setting up a smart playlist to listen to an audiobook is both easy and very efficient.
In iTunes, select File > New Smart Playlist. You’ll see a Smart Playlist window which offers to “match the following rule”. By default, this is Artist contains, then a blank field. Select the “contains” menu, and change it to “is”. Then, in the field, type the name of the author.
Next, click the + icon next to that rule to create another rule. From the first menu, select “Album”; select “is” from the second menu; then type in the title of the book.
Click the + icon again. Select the first menu and choose “Play Count”. The second menu will change to “is”, and the field will fill with 0. Now, click OK. You’ll see the playlist and its contents, and it will be named Untitled Playlist; this name is highlighted, so to change it, just type over it. (Name it with the title of the book, or the author, or My New Audiobook, or anything you want.)
Here’s what the smart playlist does: it groups all the files by the selected author and with the selected title, but only those with a play count of 0. This means that when you’ve finished listening to the first file, its play count will become 1, and it will no longer be in the list. So to listen to a book, just select this playlist on your iPod or in iTunes and start listening to the first file. Since files you have listened to won’t be in the list, the first file will always be the next one to listen to. And since you’re remembering the playback position, even if you haven’t finished a file, it will be at the top of the list at the correct position.
When you sync your iPod, these files and their playlist will be copied. When you’ve finished listening to the book, you can either delete the files, or store them someplace else if you think you’ll want to listen to the book again. And to delete the playlist, just select it and press the delete key.
So, with these instructions, you’re ready to rip all your audiobooks and listen on your iPod. If you have any questions, post a comment below, or send me an e-mail (click the Ask Kirk link at the top of the right-hand column of this page).
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Posted: 8/1/2007 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes Tags: audiobooks, iTunes | 15 Comments »
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I have long been a fan of Samuel Beckett’s works. I first discovered him when I was in my early twenties, and soon became an avid reader of his fiction, which ranges from very short works to plays and novels. I was intrigued by the fact that this Irish author, who moved to France where he consorted with James Joyce, among others, decided, after World War II, to write in French. This prompted me to refresh my high-school French in order to read his works in the “original” language.
But Beckett’s choice of language went much further–he translated most of his own writings from French to English, and, when he later wrote in English again, translated those works into French. (Molloy is one of the rare exceptions: Beckett did not translate this novel into English on his own, but worked with Patrick Bowles, who rarely gets credit for this today.) Molloy was Beckett’s “breakout” novel, written in a style that would become his trademark: stark, minimal, even dark at times. Written in the same period as Waiting for Godot, Molloy started Beckett’s career as one of the world’s leading authors of fiction in that post-war period; it was followed by two other novels that are considered to be parts of a trilogy: Malone Dies and The Unnamable.The novel is in two parts, the first about and narrated by Molloy, a tramp who lives in a room somewhere writing things on pages for a man who comes and takes them away. The second part of the book is about Moran, a private detective sent to search for Molloy. It is hard to discuss the plot of this story without giving too much away, but it is one of the most powerful existential novels of the twentieth century.
Naxos has, in recent years, expanded their offerings from classical music to audiobooks, focusing first on classics, and now releasing many great works of Irish literature (such as James Joyce’s Ulysses). Molloy is brilliantly read by Sean Barrett and Dermot Crowley, both of whom work extensively for the BBC radio. The rhythms, tones and cadences of the reading fit with the stark nature of the work, without overdoing it; there is a risk of turning such a reading into a dismal recital, but these two readers manage to keep the text lively and emotional. The package includes notes by John Calder, who was Beckett’s British publisher for most of the author’s life, and who probably knows Beckett’s work more than anyone. This is an essential work of fiction, and a great reading.
(Coming soon: a review of Malone Dies, the second work in this trilogy.)
Posted: 3/15/2007 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: audiobooks, books, Samuel Beckett | No Comments »