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Getting an ear for books. Audiocassettes pose a new way to `read'

According to a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, the magazine of the publishing industry, this spring ``brings the largest flock of new audiocassettes to roost on booksellers' shelves to date, bringing with them a variety of voices and sounds that spans the aural spectrum. No silent spring, this.'' Too bad. Not only do I enjoy silence, I also enjoy the written word. Six or seven years ago, I predicted that books on audiocassette would not sell. The thought of listening to a book called to mind being at a movie theater when the projector goes awry, and one gets sound but no images. Reading does more than convey information; it provides a stage upon which the imagination can romp and stretch, creating pictures in collaboration with the words.

Predictably, the preponderance of ``titles'' available on audio are how-to: develop your ESP, buy stocks, negotiate successfully in real estate, lose weight, reduce stress, exercise with a spouse or a friend. One company manufactures the ``Self-Hypnosis and Subliminal Learning'' series of cassettes which the company claims will help you set goals and priorities, quit smoking, or head straight for wealth and prosperity.

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While I have nothing against such pursuits, I couldn't quite imagine how these subjects might be better presented on cassette than on the printed page. Just in case I was missing the point, I purchased a cassette called ``LOSE WEIGHT: High Energy Fiber Diet.'' I don't think it was ever a book, but the cassette came with a free menu and recipe booklet (missing from my copy). The narrator, a well-known expert in diet and fiber, talked. Frankly, I was bored. Fiber is not fascinating.

When ironing one recent afternoon, I enhanced my audio experience with ``Fer-de-Lance: A Nero Wolfe Mystery.'' This was an abridgment (as most audiocassettes are) of the book, condensed to two hours on two cassettes. I especially enjoyed the versatility of the narrator, who read several character's parts -- male and female. My husband, who happened to be working close by, confessed to being lost about 20 minutes into the story, but he later admitted, ``I was only listening out of the corner of my ear.''

I thought some nonfiction, `a la audio, would round out my exposure to this medium, so later that day I listened to excerpts from ``Iacocca'' -- ``not the book you think it is,'' the bookstore clerk had warned me. ``It's from the paperback,'' she added disdainfully. This one begins with a narrator intoning the details of Iacocca's commute to Ford on the fateful day he was to be fired. I was amused by the background music, which reminded me of the theme from ``Jaws.'' I didn't finish the cassette, so I can't say how the book went, but I think it had a happy ending.

I've heard it argued persuasively that listening to books is great when you're doing other things: gardening, for instance, or commuting to work. I don't always do well at more than one thing at a time, so I could just imagine planting petunias where I'd intended to put impatiens -- or missing a highway exit because I was trying to remember who'd been the last person to see the murder victim alive.

And what if your mind wanders while you're listening to a book? You'd have to depress the stop button on your cassette recorder, rewind, hope to arrive somewhere in the vicinity of the part you'd missed, and begin again. It's far easier to flip several pages in a book, or let the eyes wander back a few paragraphs to pick up the missed portions.

Not all audiocassettes are the same, I have also discovered. One company, which specializes in recording entire books, promises ``up to 16 hours of listening enjoyment'' on their label. Their cassettes, however, require stereo tape players. Now perhaps I could save up several loads of ironing, move the board and iron into the living room where the stereo is, and spend one very long day listening to a book.

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