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I would run over hill and dale to listen to Jim’s many voices at Hogwarts.
I would fight past the meanest Balrog to listen to Rob’s sonorous tones sing the Lay of Luthien or the call of the Ents.
I would travel from green fields to Earth’s end to hear Colin read, well, anything.
I will always visit Mitford with my dear friend John.
My dear narrators, who give life and lung, polish and panache to the inhabitants of books.
They are my companion on the road and my dear friend by the fire. Cheers to the narrators!
Jim Dale Narrating

Jim Dale

I’ve enjoyed audio books since they were known as “books on tape.” I’ve made trips where the destination seemed to arrive too soon for the story. Of course, it’s even easier now with Audible and smartphones to listen anywhere (see here for how Jawbone Icon HD makes this even easier). While it’s often the case that I listen to books rather than read them for mere convenience and time, there are some narrators (or, more informally for me, readers) who bring a whole other dimension to the book; they don’t just make it more convenient, they make it better. I’ve hinted at some of my favorites above:

  • Jim Dale and the Harry Potter series, with a big shout out to his narration of The Night Circus
  • Rob Inglis and Lord of the Rings (available in the US on Audible for the first time in years) and the Wizard of Earthsea Cycle
  • Colin Firth and End of the Affair
  • John McDonough and the Mitford series

There are others:  Jake Gyllenhaal’s Great Gatsby, Ilyana Kadushin’s Twilight series, Anne Hathaway’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Simon Vance reading the Bond books and Simon Prebble reading Dick Francis novels. I could go on, but there’s a start. Perhaps, Firth, Hathaway, and Gyllenhaal don’t fully fit because they’re mainly actors who have narrated but a little (Firth & Gyllenhaal, one book and Hathaway four). However, they did a fabulous job. Of course, there are other actors, such as Tim Curry who have made extensive recordings, and with that voice, I’m glad he did.

Rob Inglis

The two on whom I’ll focus are Jim Dale and Rob Inglis. These men are amazing. Mr. Dale almost never bleeds characters. He simply nails the characters and speaks them out to fill the room. I’ve got to think they cast the movies with his characterizations of the voices in mind. I would rather listen to Harry Potter than read it any day. His timing is impeccable. I know it’s hip to like Stephen Fry’s version. Fry is really good (and I love him as an actor, especially as Jeeves), but I personally like Dale more. Mr. Dale’s voice draws me into Hogwarts in a way that the printed word can’t quite conjure up. Both print or audio versions of the book transport me into that wonderful world, but I believe it is my “sound” memory of the audiobook that draws me in. Whether it’s the little ditty at the beginning of the audiobook or his voice’s inflection as McGonagall, those subtle sounds invite me to join the wizarding world for a time. There are also times when that same sound brings to the fore memories of where I was when I last listened to the story. It is an immersive experience and Mr. Dale’s voice lends itself to set the stage of the story.

Mr. Inglis simply has a fantastic voice. The timber of his voice, his choice of character inflections are dead on and his range is amazing. Mr. Inglis isn’t quite as crisp in his transition between characters; there is the rare bleed into the next character. This is especially prevalent in the dialog between Gandalf and Aragon. However, Mr. Inglis’s voice evokes hearth and home, like listening to an uncle tell a story. It is a voice that welcomes you in and yet brings out the drama.

One nice feature of both these narrators is that they can sing. I understand why narrators read songs, but I do get a bit annoyed when they do so. The whole spell of the tale is broken when a song is read because the expected rhythm is off.  When it is sung, the pace resolves itself to compel the narrative forward. I believe that the pacing works even when it is “spoken-sung” or Sprechgesang, an art brought to its zenith with Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

Now, I admit that when I read “print”, whether an ebook or physical book, it’s typically my sole focus. So, I mostly listen to fun novels, although I do listen to some deeper works where I can go back to print to re-read when I couldn’t focus. Of course, a more fully immersive experience would be to read and listen simultaneously. This bimodal reading is supported on Amazon’s Kindle Fire in an automated way (see more about this here), but of course, the old school method of just reading the words while listening is always available. Bimodal reading is really helpful for understanding difficult or dense text.

While I’ve highlighted two narrators, there are so many great ones: Gabrielle de Cuir, Stefan Rudnicki, Kate Rudd, Scott Brick and Rebecca Soler just to name some more. I’ve spent countless hours listening to books. I love books and there’s never enough time to read them all; audio books help “redeem the time,” but even more, they provide a sound stage for the narrative. Cheers to the readers, to the narrators, to the performers of story!