TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Condense Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
"Johnson, Glen M." <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 19 Dec 2001 11:33:13 -0500
text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (194 lines)
Twain, Mark.  _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.  Read by Garrick
Hagon.  2 compact CDs.  Abridged.  Approximate playing time 2 hrs. 38
min.  Naxos AudioBooks, 1995.  ISBN: 9626340738

Twain, Mark.  _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_.  Read by Garrick Hagon.  2
compact CDs. Abridged.  Approximate playing time 2 hrs. 38 min.  Naxos
AudioBooks, 1996.  ISBN: 9626340800

Twain, Mark.  _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_.  Read by
Kenneth Jay.  2 compact CDs.  Abridged.  Approximate playing time 2 hrs.
25 min.  Naxos AudioBooks, 2001.  ISBN: 9626342188

Twain, Mark.  _The Prince and the Pauper_.  Read by Kenneth Jay.  2
compact CDs.  Abridged.  Approximate playing time 2 hrs. 37 min.  Naxos
AudioBooks, 2001.  ISBN: 9626342269

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project.  Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

        Glen M. Johnson  <[log in to unmask]>
        The Catholic University of America

Here are recorded readings of four popular Mark Twain works, abridged,
available in either compact-disc or cassette format.  _Tom Sawyer_ and
_Huckleberry Finn_ are not new (1996 and 1995 copyrights); they have
been repackaged and released, along with new recordings of _A
Connecticut Yankee_ and _The Prince and the Pauper_, as "Junior
Classics."  These recordings are not dramatizations or adaptations; they
consist of Mark Twain's words (mainly), in Mark Twain's order.
Listeners do get an extra in the form of musical excerpts; Naxos is
primarily a purveyor of budget classical recordings, and they take
advantage of this in an extensive catalog of "Classic Literature with
Classical Music."  The music is generally well selected and unobtrusive:
Delius and Janacek for the Mississippi books; Purcell, Sullivan, and
MacDowell for the historical romances.  It appears mainly as interludes
between segments of recorded text, though occasionally music will
underscore climactic moments, such as Tom's and Becky's return from the

Obviously, the central issue with these recorded versions of Mark Twain
is the fact that they are abridged.  Before addressing that, however, I
will say something about the phenomenon of the audio book, and about the
quality of these particular versions as performances.

Although recorded versions of literature have been around since Thomas
Edison (who recorded himself reading Dickens), the growth of the audio
book has been spurred by technology, from long-playing records to audio
cassettes, and now compact disks and audio downloads.  For more than a
decade, recorded books have been the fastest-growing segment of
commercial publishing; recently the Barnes and Noble chain moved shelves
of audio books to a prominent position near the entrances to many of its
stores, right behind best-sellers and new releases.  This development
has been lamented by critics like Sven Birkerts ("Close Listening: The
Metaphysics of Reading an Audio Book," _Harper's_, 286 [1993]: 86); but
the fact is that Americans increasingly are encountering literature
through their ears rather than their eyes.  Nineteenth-century classics
are prominent among available titles, no doubt due to freedom from
copyright.  Mark Twain's works are well represented: there are other
recordings, besides the Naxos packages, of each of these four
works--indeed, most of Twain's books have been recorded, some of them
several times.

As performances, these four Naxos editions are of high quality. Naxos
employs professional actors as readers. Garrick Hagon, in the two
Mississippi books, has a Middle-American tenor voice and does a
convincing-sounding adolescent, or woman.  (His Huck Finn is clearly
influenced by Hal Holbrook.)  For the historical romances, Canadian-born
Kenneth Jay provides inflections that work well especially for the
hybrid American-British world of _A Connecticut Yankee_.  Both readers
have an actorly tendency to inflect characterizations rather heavily.
For Jay this amounts mainly to an array of British accents, while Hagon
is far more likely to ham things up.  Hagon's women can be difficult to
take: one can hardly blame Huck for wanting to light out from such a
chirrupy Aunt Sally.

The degree of vocal inflection for characterization is an important
consideration in evaluating the aesthetic status of a written text
transferred to the audio medium.  Reader-performers tend to take one of
two approaches.  The more purist approach provides a straightforward
reading of the author's words, implicitly claiming to be a more-or-less
transparent presentation of the work.  From an aesthetic standpoint,
this claim is untenable: envoicing in any medium restricts the range of
imaginative possibilities open to the silent reader of a printed text.
The Naxos actors take a different approach, one that exploits the
medium, emphasizing the performative nature of their readings by
strongly inflecting language and characterizations.  This kind of
reading comes close to dramatization, and even though the text is not
_adapted_ for dramatic purposes, each recorded performance should be
considered a transformation of the text, a distinctive artifact.
Besides envoicing, an additional characteristic of performance is also
relevant here: given the still-primitive state of playback technology,
the linear nature of performance dominates an audio book: the pace of
reading is determined by the recording, making difficult the silent
reader's ability to pause, slow down, reread, or otherwise savor
particular elements of the work.  In crucial ways, the printed text,
which lies there on the page but can be visually manipulated by the
reader, is more dynamic than a recording which moves relentlessly

On the other hand, in considering Mark Twain's works, it will probably
not do to be too purist about print.  Mark Twain developed his art on
the platform and gave readings throughout his career.  He apparently
made some recordings, now lost.  His writing has an oral, performative
basis; it began as the art of how to _tell_ a story. He was open to
adaptations of his work in other media. So it is a reasonable surmise
that he would find audio versions of his works acceptable, and might try
to make some money that way.

A platform reading, of the sort Mark Twain did and Hal Holbrook has
recreated, is inevitably excerpted and condensed, which might seem to
justify abridgement of the works on the Naxos recordings. But abridging
the text is more questionable when considering these releases as what
they overtly purport to be: readings of Mark Twain's works. In fact,
there is no good reason for abridgements--unless Naxos is assuming that
its customers won't devote more than 150 minutes to any particular
book--other than the economics of publishing, since standard practice is
to price audio books according to the number of tapes or CD's in the
package, and unabridged audio books can cost several times as much as
print versions of the same text. But that is not always the case; there
are budget lines of audio books, as there are of printed books.  New
technologies will resolve this particular issue: formats that will hold
an unabridged book on one disk, and of course audio downloads, which
require only a high-speed internet hookup and a inexpensive player.

These four books have been heavily abridged for the Naxos recordings.
The extent of abridgement is greater in _Huckleberry Finn_ and _A
Connecticut Yankee_ than in the shorter books, since the length of these
readings is determined not by any internal considerations of the works,
but by the technology of playback--two compact disks or four audio
cassettes, about two and one-half hours total.  (Here _Tom Sawyer_ is
actually longer than _Huckleberry Finn_--by 20 seconds.)  In no case
does as much as half of the original text remain.  With _Huckleberry
Finn_, it is less than a quarter.  The abridgements have been carefully
done, with an emphasis on narrative coherence; cuts range from phrases,
sentences, and paragraphs within a given sequence, to entire episodes
stretching over multiple chapters.  Despite the designation as "Junior
Classics," the cuts don't seem to have been made to protect the ears of
youth: the fraught word "nigger" remains, as does much of the
anti-clericalism of _A Connecticut Yankee_.  (There is one curious
exception: in _Tom Sawyer_, the words "stark naked" have disappeared in
the description of the frontispiece of the schoolmaster's anatomy book,
which Becky Thatcher accidentally rips.)  As the abridged texts proceed,
there are occasional minor changes in wording or an added phrase here
and there to provide transitions, but for the most part the producers
have managed the difficult if ambiguous feat, even in episodic works
such as these, of cutting out a majority of the text while maintaining
the flow and logic of the story, or as much of the story as remains.
Someone who lacks previous familiarity with one of these works can
listen to the recording without too many loose ends.

But there _are_ loose ends, of course, and worse. To take Mark Twain's
finest work as an example, here we have _Huckleberry Finn_ without Tom
Sawyer's gang (though with a lot of the concluding Evasion), without the
Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, Colonel Sherburn, or the Wilks episode.
In fact, of the long stretch of shore episodes between chapters 17 and
30, all that remains is the Royal Nonesuch (which does give the King and
Duke their brief time on stage). Of passages celebrated in critical
literature, there is no trace of Huck's description of sunrise in
chapter 19, or of his bouts with conscience and his decision to go to
hell in chapter 31. Given all that, it seems reasonable to ask what's
left. The answer is: a basic storyline, two and one-half hours of
entertaining episodes in entertaining vernacular language. But it seems
clear that we do not have what is advertised on the packaging,
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ by Mark Twain.

I believe that audio books can have considerable value.  Listening to a
recorded performance of a text one already knows can provide a new
perspective and suggest emphases and nuances other than familiar ones.
I have found also that recordings can be a useful tool in teaching:
having students listen to a professional reading of a passage, following
along in print, is a good entry to discussion.  But although the teacher
will select passages for discussion--I can't recommend spending eight to
eleven hours of class time listening!--the recording should be
unabridged. One doesn't have to be a purist to believe that the
integrity of a classic text is a value to be preserved in teaching
literature--and besides, it is almost impossible to follow a text where
every few words, sentences, and paragraphs are missing. These reasons
make the Naxos versions of Mark Twain's work unacceptable,
professionally produced as they are. Nor are they to be recommended for
listening in a more leisurely context, such as a drive to the beach: too
much is missing of what makes these books what they are.

For readers of this review who are unfamiliar with audio books and would
like to try one, I recommend an unabridged _Huckleberry Finn_ read by
Norman Dietz, available for around $20, including near the entrance at
Barnes and Noble. It can also be downloaded--for free, as of this
writing--in MP3 format, from (I thank Kent Rasmussen
for that information, as well as for helpful comments on this review. He
adds a recommendation of Dietz's _Roughing It_.)