Sometimes, mistakes of the past offer harsh lessons.
Roughly a decade ago, some of the companies that did unabridged audio simply had a stable of readers and they doled out the books on what almost seemed to be the musical chairs method.
Well, they gave books by female authors to female readers and male authors to male readers. It was also fairly common to have a British reader for a British book. But, sadly, sometimes it didn’t go much beyond that.
Consider, for example, Books on Tape having white readers do titles by the prominent African-American author, Ernest J. Gaines. Today, that choice seems not merely careless, but insulting.
Fortunately for listeners, this is all changing. Books on Tape now has African-American readers for titles by Gaines, Terry McMillan and Bebe Moore Campbell.
With audio books becoming more and more popular, it’s more important - as well as easier - to more accurately reflect the author in the choice of reader. There are so many things to consider: the country - or even region - where the book is set. The race or ethnic background of the author. Maybe even the political alignment. Can you imagine, for instance, Warren Beatty reading Newt Gingrich’s upcoming book?
How far do publishers have to take it? As far as possible, I say, although I’m not exactly prepared to say someone from Virginia shouldn’t read a book set in Mississippi.
Last year, for “Zlata’s Diary” (90 minutes, $11), Penguin HighBridge recruited Polish actress Dorota Puzio.
Recorded Books, the master of casting, found South African actress Maggie Soboil to read Alan Paton’s classic story of a Zulu minister, “Cry the Beloved Country” (10 hours, $16.50 rental, (800) 638-1304).
For the autobiography “Wilma Mankiller: A Chief and Her People” (3 hours, $16.95, Audio Renaissance), the story of the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, the reader is Joy Harjo, a writer and musician who is a member of the Creek tribe. She was Mankiller’s personal choice for narrator.
For “Goodbye, Saigon” (abridged to 3 hours, $17.95, Dove), a novel by Nina Vida about Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S., the narrator is Asian actress Lauren Tom.
Obviously, the point is to have the narration sound as authentic as possible.
Choices need to be made with care. Having a reader as closely aligned with the book as possible adds to the overall integrity of the recording. Listeners deserve nothing less.