Audiobooks and the Platonic Story

Spoiler Alert

The following contains minor plot spoilers for John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I’ve veiled the details as much as possible, but if you’re wanting to remain pristine, you might want to skip this one.

I was listening to a not-very-recent episode of Judge John Hodgman recently where Judge Hodgman, Bailiff Jesse, and an unspeakably fabulous man debated the equivalence of reading and listening to audiobooks, and ever since I’ve been paying much more attention to the different dynamics of the experiences. Having just made it through Spring Break, and as a regular commuter, I’ve been doing a lot of both, and my feeling—somewhat surprisingly—is that Judge Hodgman was right: they are “separate but equal” experiences. A book and its audiobook offer two fundamentally different ways to experience the story they describe.

One of the assumptions that I bring to gaming is that ultimately, games—at least, the games that I like—are about stories, and that videogames are just another medium for telling stories. The nature of the medium affects how we tell and experience stories, and so stories told through videogames are different from stories told through books, movies, or TV shows. But McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” has become cliché at this point, and so I’ll say it maybe a different way.

A story is an independent thing. It lives out there in the world of ideas, no matter who is telling it or listening to it—even if nobody is. Think of The Aristocrats., a joke that’s been told millions of times by millions of people. Each time, the story is the same; each time, the story is totally different. Think of Harry Potter, and especially of Pottermore. The book series is long over, but J. K. Rowling still has the ability, through Pottermore, to add to and alter Harry Potter canon. The implication is that the story—and the world of Harry Potter—extends far beyond the books, and that Rowling has access to that story. The books—like each telling of The Aristocrats offer one glimpse into a platonic Story that extends beyond the limited bounds of the instance of telling.

The medium in which a telling takes place, then, shapes how an audience can access that story, sometimes fundamentally. I remember re-watching The Green Mile once and being very confused that a specific scene was missing. Eventually, I realized what had happened: having both read the book and seen the movie, my memory had populated a scene from the book with Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, even though I’d never actually seen them act out that scene. My viewing of the movie shaped my reading of the book, and my reading of the book shaped my viewing of the movie, because each shaped my experience of the story that both were telling.

Just like books and films, books and audiobooks offer fundamentally different glimpses through the window of narrative at the Story they tell. Reading aloud is an act of interpreting, and sometimes those interpretive choices fundamentally change the nature of the story.

Take, for example, Let the Right One In. It includes the following dialog:

Never again. No matter what you say.”


No. It’s just—no.”

There is, you’ll note, no attribution in any of these lines, and the surrounding texts offers no descriptive detail of any kind. This scene is just dialog, just back-and-forth between the two participants. Håkan is named, but the other party is not. If I’d come to the novel fresh—that is, without having seen the film adaptation—I would have no idea who Håkan was talking to. The sex, age, personality, and background of Håkan’s interlocutor would have been completely blank for me, reading this text—they would have been words coming from a void. And I presume that this is Lindqvist’s intention in leaving out description and attribution: he wants this person to be blank.

In an audiobook, however, things become immediately more complicated. There’s no clear way to punctuate, and so a reader-out-loud would immediately need to delineate in some way which lines belong to which speaker—and also to clarify that the lines are coming from a speaker, and not the narrator. They would need to characterize the voices in some way. Håkan is easy—we’ve heard from him prior to this, and so presumably the reader would have already established a voice for him. We’ve met the second speaker, too—but in the context of the scene, we don’t know who is speaking. So if you’re reading this for an audiobook, you have to decide: do I use the voice associated with the speaker, since I know who is speaking? If so, you give away something that is intentionally ambiguous in the text; in fact, you give away a major plot point. If not, how do you voice this speaker? There is no such thing as a neutral voice, and even if there were, using a neutral voice for this speaker would imply that it’s a new character, not one we’ve already met. This is even more complicated because to give a voice to that character, you’ll have to make some concrete choices about how that character sounds—and it’s another major plot point that this character’s appearance is deceiving.

Another example I’ve been dealing with recently is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, which I’m re-reading/re-listening-to. I’m going back and forth between the written text and Michael Kramer’s excellent reading (which complicates things further). The first time I experienced the last book, The Hero of Ages, I was listening to it, and I realized immediately that Kramer was put in an impossible position with the very first words of the first chapter:

I am, unfortunately, the Hero of Ages.

The question of who, precisely, the Hero of Ages was, is, or will be is one of the foundational questions of the series, and it is a question that is answered somewhere near the end of the final book. Almost every chapter of The Hero of Ages begins with an epigraph taken from a text written after the events of the book by the Hero.

It is probably no spoiler to say that the Hero of Ages is revealed to be someone we already know, rather than a brand new character introduced in the last pages of the trilogy. The simple statement above is the epigraph for Chapter 1. Thus, before the story in which the Hero is revealed begins, Kramer has to read a statement of identity written by the Hero. And the Hero already has a voice.

So what can Kramer do? If he reads it in the voice of the character who will be revealed to be the Hero, listeners who have been through the series in audio format—as I had, when I first listened—will likely know immediately who the Hero will be. If he reads it in a different voice, he steers us in the wrong direction—which might, in fact, have been preferable. If he reads it in the narrator’s voice—as he does later with an epigraph from a different source, with a unknown writer—it becomes unclear that what he is reading is an epigraph, and not a part of the story. Ultimately, he read the epigraph in the character’s voice, and in that way gave a huge hint about the end of the book. I don’t remember for sure if I guessed instantly who the Hero would be—I think I did—but I do remember hearing that first epigraph and immediately eliminating several characters—including a few of my most likely guesses.

Does this make the book any less than what it was? I don’t think so. It’s a problem with no solution, and to my mind, it doesn’t take anything away from my experience of the story. What it does do is add an intermediary between me and the story that didn’t exist before, and the choices of that intermediary affect my experience of that story. Kramer becomes, almost, a second author, reshaping the way that I experience the story that Sanderson wrote.

This is very similar to the weird thing that will be happening with Game of Thrones in the coming seasons, as the TV show progresses beyond the realm of the books on which it’s based. They’re both trying to tell the same story—more or less—and now we’ve got two different windows onto that story. Are they the same? Definitely not. But we can’t really call one of them the true story anymore, because now Game of Thrones is doing something more than simply adapting A Song of Ice and Fire.

Separate, but equal. Hodgman was, of course, right.