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Talking Book Topics

In the last edition of the Canadian Blind Monitor, I promised readers that future Monitors would include a regular feature under the working title of Talking Book Topics. Although no longer the editor, I am pleased to note that our new editor Mary Ellen is of a like mind.

Many of you will have heard the story about a sales manager who sends a memo to his staff exhorting them to submit creative ideas for a new sales campaign. He really wasn't all that good at generating these ideas himself, preferring the person to person contact he had enjoyed before becoming a manager. Thinking about this he almost immediately decided to give up his managerial position and return to the sales force. His request was granted with unseemly promptness. Delighted with his decision, he arrived early to begin his old job determined to show the world his great prowess as a salesman. "Before I get down to the real business of sales"he said to himself, "I'll wade through the correspondence the last salesman left me. OK, here's a memo from the sales manager . . . that's strange, he's got the same name as I do!"

In my new position as a reader of the Canadian Monitor, I feel a little like the sales manager turned salesman. I thought perhaps I ought to check on what I had said about this subject in the third edition: This new section of 'The Canadian Blind Monitor' will, therefore, be dedicated primarily to talking book topics. That is our working title but if you have a better suggestion write and let us know. Well, just to get things started, let me ask you some of the questions that have stimulated much interest and discussion at the Kelowna Bookies Club:

What book has had the most dramatic effect on your life?

Who is your favourite narrator and, conversely, who drives you nuts and why?

Do you have a favourite author? If so, who? What's the funniest book you've ever read?

Which fictional character has moved you most deeply? How and why?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of authorized as opposed to unauthorized biographies?

These are just a few examples of the virtually unlimited topics that stimulate lively discussion among talking book users. As this will be an ongoing feature in 'The Canadian Blind Monitor,' we would like to hear from any talking book user on any subject that might be of interest to others. Please send your letters to the National Office.

Not having developed the outline for my article much beyond this point, I decided to record a few random thoughts on my cassette recorder to see if I could later organize these notes into some logical sequence responsive to the suggestions made in the third edition.

Much later -- I would rather not tell you how much later -- I had more material than I could use. I normally have difficulty remembering five items on a shopping list. In this instance, my memory had become a cornucopia of remembered authors, titles and even narrators, although I was not always able to link them together. So what was I to do?

Discipline was clearly necessary. Restricting my response to two or three of the suggestions in the third edition seemed unavoidable. Fortunately, one of the suggestions lent itself to a simple and unambiguous response. The book that has had the most dramatic effect on my life is 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. It's a very long book, too long in my opinion. I'm not absolutely sure it would affect me in the same way if I were to read it for the first time today. I have been surprised, however, to find that this has been a seminal book for many other people, although it certainly has its detractors. From time to time I've thought that perhaps I should read 'Atlas Shrugged' again. One day I probably will. Why the hesitation? Well, I don't want to risk losing the dramatic impact of that first reading, and as I said, it's a very long book.

Choosing the second question to comment upon was not really too difficult. The narrators, or readers, as we often call them, are the almost indispensable bridge linking the blind and visually impaired to the printed word. I say printed wordrather than written worddeliberately because those blind persons who use braille do not need a bridge to link them with written language. However, since many blind people cannot use braille and relatively little is available in that medium, a bridge to the printed word is vital. I say readers are almost indispensable because there are reading machines such as the Kurzweil and Arkenstone units. Both machines utilize very sophisticated technology and produce fairly accurate voice output from scanned documents or books. Although the synthesized speech is much better than it was just a few years ago, it remains nowhere near as satisfying as the human voice.

As noted in the McIntyre/Neville article entitled "The Bookies of Kelowna" in the third edition of 'The Canadian Blind Monitor':

"In addition to the formal and informal differences mentioned earlier, the bookies are very concerned with the technical quality of the recordings and, above all, the expertise of the narrators. The need for good quality recordings is self-evident and is generally present in recent recordings using the latest technology. Evaluating the quality of the narrator however, is rather more subjective, and one person's 'favourite' might be another's 'pet-hate'. All the bookies agree however, that a good narrator can save a poor book while a poor narrator can ruin a good one. Fortunately there are not too many of the latter."

As I said earlier, choosing this subject to comment upon was not too difficult. Evaluating narrators is much more difficult. Not only is the process subjective but there are literally hundreds to choose from. Furthermore, a reader who is magnificent with Mitchener might be mediocre reading McClellan. To be fair, however, most readers appear to be well matched to the material they are reading.

Recognizing the inadequacies of memory and the unavoidable subjectivity of the process, the following are my personal choices of the best talking book narrators I have had the pleasure of listening to:

Male/Female:

  1. Alexander Scourby/Sandra Scott
  2. Merwin Smith/Mitzi Friedlander
  3. Dan Lasarre/Pat Barlow
  4. Roger Norman/Jill Ferris
  5. Keith Melville/Suzanne Toren
  6. Lester Rawlins/Elizabeth Hamilton
  7. Guy Sorell/Stephanie Taylor
  8. Patrick Horgan/Aileen Seaton
  9. Roy Avers/Catherine Byers
  10. Gordon Gould/ Elise Goldsmith
  11. Bob Askey/Yvonne Fair-Tessler
  12. Frank Herbert/ Pam Ward

The essential elements in a talking book are the author, the story, the narrator and the recording/playback processes. These elements are interdependent and the overall product is, like a chain, no stronger than its weakest link. When all pieces are of high quality and in perfect harmony, the result is magic. I call what emerges a four star talking book master work. Because tastes in authors, stories and narrators vary from person to person, my master works may differ from yours, but we might both benefit from the exchange. Almost by definition, master works are rare but memorable. Here, then, are four of mine:

  1. "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh narrated by Alan Haines.

  2. "Trinity" by Leo Uris narrated by Dan Lasarre. (Note: I am not sure if this version is still available from the CNIB Library because later catalogue entries list another narrator.)

  3. "Return to Thebes" by Alan Drury narrated by Lester Rawlins.

  4. "My Name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok narrated by Frank Herbert.

Do you have your own personal 'Master Works'? If so please send them to the editor at the National Office or to me, Alan Neville at Unit 114 - 650 Lexington Drive, Kelowna, B.C. V1W 3B6.

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