Friday, January 28, 2011

Till human voices wake us...

What's the difference between reading a book and listening to a book? If you've listened to a book, can you say you've read it? Or do you have to say, “Oh yeah, I've listened to that.” The words themselves don't change, but your consumption of them is different.
I've been listening to audiobooks ever since I can remember, when they came on cassette tapes in giant cases from the library, or sat atop their accompanying books, encased in plastic, hanging from racks in bookstores (remember those?). My favorites were Roald Dahl books, especially Matilda (read by Jean Marsh) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (read by the author), but I also had a tape of traditional Scandinavian folk tales which were sometimes too creepy but did the trick in a pinch. After my parents stopped reading to me every night, I would put on a tape and drift off. I dreaded the jarring sound of the big black play button snapping up at the end of the cassette, and learned to anticipate it and stop the tape just in time. Listening to stories by myself, over and over again became a habit long before I began to appreciate music or movies or TV. Remember the list of books that Matilda reads (at age 4) when she first starts going to the library?
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Good Companion by J.B. Priestly
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I will always love how Jean Marsh read that list; as though she was repeating the names of her own children. (Trivia tangent: Jean Marsh played Mombi in Return to Oz, one of my first film obsessions.)
Now I've always got an audiobook in my regular reading rotation. The last one I finished, Room by Emma Donoghue, was read by four people, including an uncanny imitator of a five year-old boy. That's my recommendation for a strangely riveting listening experience. I still haven't finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, because every chapter is like its own wonderful short story, and I can't stand to hear it end. My roommate came home one day to find me listening to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Fortunately, nothing shocks her. I finished a lot of chores while listening to Steig Larsson's Millenium trilogy, and was enthralled by Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders. My first encounter with Neil Gaiman happened last year, while listening to his Graveyard Book, which he narrates beautifully. And did you know that Sissy Spacek reads To Kill a Mockingbird? It took me a while to recover from hearing her read, “You can pet him, Mr. Arthur. He's asleep.”
The thing about audiobooks is this: either you're hooked or you're not. My addiction seems to be particularly advanced. If I know I'm going to be taking a long drive, I start to worry about finding the right audiobook for the trip. Podcasts sometimes satisfy, if there aren't too many dishes to do or clothes to fold, but what happens when Ira Glass or Dan Savage or Jonathan Goldstein start wrapping things up too soon? Despair. I don't advise this level of dependence, but why not mix it up a bit? For the next book on your must-read list, give your eyes a break. The pleasures of being read to are not lost. Now who has my next audiobook recommendation!?!!?



  1. You make me feel a little jealous! It's the rare audiobook that I enjoy as much as reading treeware, but this has got me reconsidering. Thanks!

  2. it's really hard not to get too dependent on jonathan goldstein.


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