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>Abridged Too Far

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I dipped my toe into the audiobook waters, but now I’m thinking of pulling it back out, drying it off and never going in again.

Recently, I bought an audiobook of Black Boy, Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir of growing up in the Jim Crow American South. I paid more than $20 USD for it, and I’m disappointed in what I got for the money.
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The news is not all bad. Black Boy was performed back in 1973 by Brock Peters, who is best known for his role as Tom Robinson in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. His reading is mesmerizing and fits perfectly with Richard Wright’s powerful prose.
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What’s left of the prose, that is. When I was at the bookstore and I saw that the audiobook was abridged, alarm bells should have gone off in the library of my mind, but I sauntered to the cash register without concern. Abridged. So what? A few skillful editorial cuts here and there. No problem, right?
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Wrong. Take away Peters’ performance and the audiobook fails on every other level. First of all, the tape starts with Peters reading an anecdote from Richard’s early life. The title of the book is not introduced and the author’s name goes unmentioned. Second of all, Wright’s brilliant and harrowing narrative is spoiled by choppy editing — it’s like they went in there with pruning shears. In addition, not only is the editing choppy, it’s clumsy. Later in the audiobook, Richard references something that happens when he was six years old. If I hadn’t read an excerpt from Black Boy when I was in college, this reference would have made no sense at all, since the incident was never related in the audiobook, so I imagine that many listeners were puzzled.
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Wright’s book is approximately 450 pages long. The 2-tape audiobook clocks in at less than 2 hours and there’s almost 3 minutes of dead air at the conclusion. All of this was annoying enough, but to add insult to injury, the audiotape only covers Part 1 of Black Boy, the years that Wright lived in Mississippi. Part 2, “The Horror and the Glory”, which details his years in Chicago is completely omitted. That omission isn’t mentioned in the packaging; I found it out when I visited Amazon this morning and compared the memoir with what I’d just listened to.
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Black Boy is an amazing work, full of raw anger and power and it deserves better than shoddy treatment. This audiobook needs to be redone by a company who values quality and integrity in all parts of production. Sadly, Brock Peters died in 2005, but there must be a voice actor out there who could do justice to Richard Wright’s memoir.
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If it weren’t for Brock Peters, I wouldn’t waste any time before flinging this audiotape. I’m going to put it aside and do what I should have done in the first place: Find Black Boy in book form, read it properly and steer clear of the audiobook section of the bookstore in the future.
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