Now Hear This

Who needs to read with books on tape? (Or on CD, or maybe they're not exactly books . . . whatever.)

Audio books are an iffy affairyou stick the wrong voice on a good book and you're sunk. And why buy a recording when the private pleasures of reading are so rewarding anyway?

Well, sometimes the author's voice can't be beat, especially in the case of The David Sedaris Box Set (TimeWarner, $59.98). Sedaris is NPR's greatest gift to the nationthe flat-out funniest writer in the United States. This audio compendium of four of his hilarious essay collections captures the calm, distinctively wry mischief with which he reads his own self-immolating material. You haven't lived until you've heard Sedaris' impersonation of Billie Holiday singing the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle.

Not exactly side-splitting but nevertheless filled with a few guffaws, Hillary Rodham Clinton reads her own Living History (Simon & Schuster, $30). The CD format allows you to skip her upbringing and get right to the good stuff on Disc 5, Track 8: "Then on Wednesday morning, January 21, Bill woke me up early. He sat on the edge of the bed and said, 'There's something in today's papers you should know about. . . . '" Be grateful you live in a country that gives you the chance to hear a former first lady flatly recounting the time her husband got blown by a White House intern but told his wife that "his attention could have been misread."

You'd hope that fellow liberal star Michael Moore would take the mike for the audio version of his books, but the Oscar-winning big mouth apparently couldn't be bothered. His Stupid White Men . . . and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation (New Millenium, $34.95) is read by Laugh-In's Arte Johnson (um, okaaaay . . . ). Speaking of stupid white men, the Fox Network's Bill O'Reilly does show up to recite his Who's Looking Out for You? (Random House, $25.95), in which the sledgehammer-subtle O'Reilly Factor host discusses, according to the packaging, "a media establishment rife with political bias and economically hooked on violence and smut." This from the man whose network's biggest current hit is The O.C.

PBS may be a favorite target of Mr. O'Reilly, but it does provide two excellent, nonpartisan examples of pairing the right book with the right thespians. Fans of Mystery! should enjoy David Suchet and Joan Hickson reprising their pitch-perfect performances as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively, for readings of some of Agatha Christie's indestructible whodunits (try Suchet's Death on the Nile, Audio Partners, $29.95; and Hickson's The Moving Finger, Audio Partners, $24.95).

Anyone still hungry for a taste of murder might also get a kick out of Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Dozen (HighBridge, $26.95), which finds late greats John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson performing 12 fully dramatized versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary short capers. Gielgud's Holmes isn't going to make you forget the movies' iconic Basil Rathbone, but, geez, he's John Gielgud, and an engaging performance of "The Final Problem" has an extra morsel: Orson Welleswas there ever a finer voice?trading barbs as the nefarious Professor Moriarty.

For those who'd rather get out of the fog and into some dust, you can't do better than The Louis L'Amour Collection (HighBridge, $24.95). Someone's dad must have leaned back in his La-Z-Boy with a bourbon and dreamed up this fantasy cast: narrator Willie Nelson and ensemble players Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings performing L'Amour's peerless cowboy pulp. Pop in the first tape, and within a minute Kristofferson is stripped naked and single-handedly battling marauding Comanches. Yippee-kay-ay and ho ho ho. . . .

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