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

Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project

The following review appeared 19 December 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2001 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Glen M. Johnson
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 cave.

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 forward.

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.)