The Experience of a Book: Listening to Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter books

For many young people of my generation, especially those of us now in our early to mid-twenties, the Harry Potter books will always be one of our most important early reading experiences. Most of my friends have very specific childhood memories related to the books, which in and of itself is an astounding fact. Has there ever been a single children’s book series that has so greatly impacted a single generation? Maybe it is not a wholly unique generational experience, but it is certainly a fascinating phenomenon. Of course I have my own stories related to the Harry Potter books and I’m sure I will share many of them on this blog at some point. The books hold such an important place in my personal canon that I return to the story at least once a year, sometimes more often. What I don’t tell everyone when discussing the books, however, is that my most beloved experience of the story is through Jim Dale’s performance on the US audiobooks.

As all three of my siblings and I were of prime Harry Potter age (we’re all within five years of each other) when the books were first released, we were often fighting over who got to read the books first after release day. My mother always bought two copies of the book to minimise the suffering, and I’m proud to say that even though I was the youngest I was always in the starting line up for reading—I was a faster reader than both of my brothers, and my sister was nice enough to relinquish her seniority when she realised how much the books meant to me. After the first three books, my mother began to feel left out. She loved the books just as much as we did and wanted to share in our experience of the story more fully. Mom’s solution—audiobooks. It was a great way for us all to experience the books together, without fighting over our cherished copies or racing to see who could read fastest. For several of the books, the audio versions read by Jim Dale were my first experience of them as the release days often coincided with the long drive to Cape Cod for our annual family holiday. Ever since I've loved listening to the audiobooks so much more than reading the books.

Lately I’ve been wondering what difference this reliance on the audiobooks has made to my experience of the story. Harold Bloom has noted the role of listening in reading, even when reading silently, but still privileged the role of the physical text. ‘Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,’ Bloom asserted, ‘You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.’ Reading is indeed a complicated cognitive process and the interaction with the physical text can play a vital role—as an external repository for recording your cognitive experience, notes in the margins or underlining passages or even as an object to caress or batter depending on your emotional reaction to the text. 

Many would also argue that reading is a more active process than listening. And yet for hundreds of years, oral storytelling was human beings’ natural means for social bonding. The Odyssey and Beowulf, it could be argued, are meant to be experienced aurally. Much the same way that a performance of Hamlet will always enrich a reader’s understanding of the story. These off-the-page literary experiences are of course more open—hearing a story has historically been a communal activity. It is only in the twenty-first century that solitary experiences of oral story-telling have become common, with the rise of personal devices such as the iPod and smartphone. And yet being able to take a story with you, in your pocket, as you go about your day, is never truly solitary in the way that losing yourself in words on the page can be. I’ve found, walking around London or driving up I-95 every summer while listening to Jim Dale read Harry Potter, that the story seeps into the physical world more easily than if I had to put down the book every time I need to interact with the world around me. 

One critic, analysing the differences between reading a book and listening to an audiobook, notes that the most significant difference between the two experiences of a story is that ‘the audio book imposes a kind of interpretation on the text that is not your own. In reading silently, the sound of a character's voice is usually hazy in my imagination, but the audio book makes the sound definite’. In such an extraordinary performance of a text as Jim Dale’s, hundreds of characters with distinct voices and a pitch-perfect feel for the pacing and tone of the story, this added layer of interpretation is highly noticeable. In other audiobooks with more straightforward, or less dynamic readings, the performer’s interpretation can have a negligible effect on the listener’s experience of the story. My experience of the Harry Potter story, however, is forever indebted to Jim Dale. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've had enriching imaginative experience when reading and so I am fully able to conjure up a story's richness in my own imagination without assistance. But the layer of interpretation added to the story with Dale's reading does not preclude my own imaginative work, but instead I feel that it enhances my experience of a story I know so well.

I’ve listened to the Stephen Fry reading of Harry Potter for the UK audiobook and I found the experience of the story to be quite different. Fry, an engaging reader with a great, evocative voice, does not give as dramatic a reading. His voices for the different characters are less memorable. I admit to a pronounced bias in this judgment of course, but I think if you were to objectively compare the two performances, Dale’s performance would display more varied and unique voices for the sprawling cast of characters than Fry’s. At the very least, it is certainly true that Dale’s performance has garnered several more awards than Fry’s. Of course ask my boyfriend who grew up listening to Fry's reading and he is appalled to her Jim Dale 'butchering' the reading (his words). It's obviously a very personal preference. 

So. How has Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter series affected my experience of the story? I know I’m not the only person who hears his voices in my head now whenever I do read the books. More than that, though, I have a great affection not just for the story itself but for the sounds I now associate with it. I’ve searched in vain online for recordings of the opening and closing music as I have such an emotional attachment to it. The sound of those opening notes is enough to transport me to Harry Potter’s imaginary world, the magical world I love so well. Listening to the audiobooks also infused the beloved story with a social aspect, memories of sharing the story with my family enrich the experience with a feeling of home and happiness. 


Let’s discuss: Do you listen to audiobooks? Do you enjoy the experience as much (or more) as reading?

Secondary reading material referenced:

  • Harold Bloom quoted in Amy Harmon,  'Loud, Proud, and Unabridged: It Is Too Reading!' The New York Times, March 25, 2005.
  • William Irwin, 'Reading Audiobooks', Philosophy and Literature 33.2 (October 2009): 358-68.