Due to the happy arrival of 2 grandbabies, I find myself on the road a lot: 1 hour (with luck) to visit baby Hannah, now 20 months old; and 7 hours (including pit stops) to visit baby Leo, now 18 months old. Unless there’s terrible traffic, with the radio for company and the beautiful scenery outside my window, the 1 hour trip goes by in a flash; but the 7 hour trip can seem interminable: the radio comes and goes, about half of the drive is exceedingly ugly, and there’s always traffic.
I’d been urged to listen to Books on Tape for a very long time – back when they really were on tape! – and I tried it once. On a 6 hour drive from Washington DC to New York City, I listened to I CLAUDIUS.
And I hated it.
I took this trip often and I would gage my progress more by the time that passed than by the landscape: three hours; half way there!
But while I CLAUDIUS, may have taken 6 hours of listening, it felt as though centuries had passed, with emperors coming and going, with innumerable battles won and lost, and with an astonishing number of poisonings and murder. As I’ve never been one to stop something I’ve started – I never walk out of the theater during a bad play, concert, film; never leave a book unfinished – I continued to pass the centuries with Claudius.
And vowed never to listen to a book on tape again.
But: 7 hours? And annoying traffic despite being on a 12-lane highway? And huge stretches of ugly shopping centers, one right after another?
With the advent of Audible.com where you can easily download an entire book onto your mobile phone and never have to change a tape or CD, I decided to try again.
And I love it!
For one, I don’t feel as though I’m wasting my time during these 7 hours. And as I’ve learned to choose my books more wisely – to only listen to stories that stick to one lifetime; and to choose my Reader carefully – I find that listening to books makes the time go by quickly. I confess that some [very few] times, I’ve even stayed in my car after I’d reached my destination, just so that I might pause the book at a more opportune moment. (Don’t tell Leo!)
The act of listening to a book instead of reading one is a completely different experience. In a very real way, an audio book is a continuation of an oral tradition that is the beginning of all literature. And for most of us, having stories read to us is one of the first ways in which we become familiar with language; it can bring you back to that happy time when books were read aloud, especially for you. It’s also a way to preserve the sound of language as spoken today. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could know how words sounded in Shakespeare’s day instead of making a guess at it?
Of course, when you listen to a book, its Reader makes choices for you that you might not yourself have made – for better or worse. You also can’t catch all the nuances of language and style, as you can’t slow down the pace or re-read passages you particularly like or that need clarification. I tried a few times to “bookmark” a particular page I liked, or to replay a passage or two that I found unclear, but that didn’t seem to help. Besides, if the “medium is the message” then each one requires a different approach, and with audio books, it seems best to just let the words wash over you, to get into the mood and not into the details.
And this is why you must choose your book and Reader carefully.
A book I love but hadn’t read in a long time is William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST, so I decided to listen to it. This proved a poor choice, as the book includes lots of southern and other dialects and has a plot that goes forward and backward in time, both of which require a lot of concentration. So although the book had an excellent Reader, I found it difficult to grasp or appreciate enough of the novel while also paying attention to my driving.
Summerset Maugham’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE failed because the Reader (male), tried to approximate the voices of the women – which is not at all necessary! -- by giving them squeaking voices and mincing manners. I hated the story, the characters, the entire experience: and it was the Reader’s fault. I will avoid him in future.
But I thoroughly enjoyed the historical novels of Hilary Mantel – WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES – as it brought to life Tudor England as told through the eyes of one of its major players, Thomas Cromwell. They are quite detailed novels, but I already “knew” most of the major characters so that made it easy to follow. I’m looking forward to the next volume in this series.
Of late, I’ve also listened to “celebrity” Readers – Colin Firth reading Graham Greene’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR (swoon!); and Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA.
Irons’ reading of LOLITA is a revelation; it is laugh-out-loud funny; it is poignant; it is tragic; it is beautiful. His Humbert is clueless at the same time that he is defensive; he is pleased with himself at the same time that he is angry and embarrassed. Beautiful language is used to tell a tragic and comic tale, and Irons manages this to perfection. There are lots of descriptive “lists” in this book – of landscapes, of types of people, of the American systems of education, of law, of love, of passion – and they are as acutely read as they were written. Perhaps they’re even better, as in Irons' reading of them, they don’t feel like mere lists but are melodious and funny…. Listening to Irons makes the novel resonate and reminds us of its brilliance.
But one of the main problems with audio books -- no matter how wonderful! -- and why reading a book is usually better than listening to it, is that in the audio book, the Reader can replace the character as written. Irons completely replaces Humbert. Forever. Despite Nabokov's physical and mental description of Humbert, I will no longer be able to imagine him for myself. (I can’t even picture James Mason as Humbert any more!) For me, Maurice Bendrix is Colin Firth; Humbert Humbert is Jeremy Irons – and not the other way around -- frozen that way forever: goodbye imagination.
I’ll never listen to a “celebrity” Reader again; I’ll never listen to anyone I can “picture.” **
And no matter the Reader, as most of the books we listen to were written to be read, that's probably the best approach to the material, the best approach to this particular medium. When you're doing the reading, the writer's words won’t just wash over you, but you’re free to slow down, to stop, to re-read, and to savor each and every one of them. And when you're doing the reading, you collaborate with the writer in creating the characters, the settings, the emotions, the emphasis. This is, of course, what the Readers of these audio books have done; but when you read rather than listen, you get to do it yourself: the story, the characters, the setting – the book is yours!
Still, I won’t stop listening. (After all, 7 hours!) But I only listen in the car, never at home: home is reading space.
But when in the middle of a good listen, I can choose to go to the grocery store that’s 6 miles away rather than the one that’s just across the street.
What’s wrong with that?- - - - -
** Note: My son-in-law, Robert Shapiro, is a [wonderful] reader for Random House and others. You can download his books; and as you don’t know what he looks like, you can use your imagination to picture anyone you want when you listen!