May 28, 2009KR BlogKRReading

Audiobooks and the Road

One of the compensations for my new hour-long commute from Columbus to Gambier has been the chance to listen to a considerable number of audiobooks on my iPod. (I can only bear listening to the same news story on NPR so many times, not to mention the pledge drives, or inane chatter on talk radio. . . .) But an hour allows a good, deep immersion into the pleasures of voice and story. So ensared do I become that I will pick up the thread while in the gym, rather than switch to music or the laughs of something like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

It’s not great literature I’ll be listening to, however, no challenging novels and the like. After all, that’s what I spend much of the day addressing professionally, so on the road I want something else. History works well–recently Simon Schama’s Rough Passage, a great book about slavery and freedom during and just after the American Revolution. Right now it’s Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, a brilliant biography. And thrillers or detective stories make the fields of central Ohio fly: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was finished all too soon.

Listening is very different from reading. Well, duh, my kids might fling back at me. But really.

I’m a slow reader. The better I like something, the slower or more indirectly I’ll go. I’ll re-read a sentence, or go back and work through a paragraph again, or roll a particular word or phrase in my mouth, or maybe just let an image happen without hurry. So aside from wanting a break from “literature,” it’s also that listening to a book doesn’t give me the same kind of ownership over it.

That may seem an odd notion–ownership of the books we read. I certainly don’t mean because we pay Amazon or Borders to possess the physical text. Rather, we bring those books into being, we realize them, through the act of reading. All we have are these black marks on the page–only our skill and imagination as readers reignites them into story or poem.

When we listen to a narrator recite a tale, it’s a profoundly different kind of transmission. It’s lovely and comforting, to be sure. We recall the pleasures of childhood, being read to in a small group or as we once drifted away into comforts of bed and sleep.

Not a far leap from such memories to envisioning a time before print, from literacy to orality, when the bard entertains after a feast, or folk tales pass among generations through the telling. Another discovery of audiobooks: listening to The Odyssey is so profoundly a different experience from reading it.

There’s something of this still alive in theater–how powerful it is to be caught up in a drama being realized–that word again–before your eyes. (I recently saw the astounding revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway. Reading wouldn’t come close.) But here again: no stopping to look up a word, to puzzle out the meaning of an allusion, to repeat a certain bit of dialogue.

One last turn on this: my old friend and mentor Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor used to read aloud to each other in the evenings or while doing the dishes or, yes, while riding in the car. The novels of Thackeray, as I recall, were a favorite companion for them. What a lovely intimacy this evokes, similar again to childhood memories or to reading aloud to my own children. Not, I’m afraid, an intimacy generated by the Audible narrators. Just as well.