(Don’t) Listen to Me

Call me old-fashioned but I can’t get my ear around audio books. Truth is, until yesterday I had never really given it a chance. When I was forced to explain what I thought about it (“I just don’t like it” wasn’t enough), I thought to leave prejudice aside and give an honest listen. For all these quick experiments I am always grateful to the people at Project Gutenberg, they do make it look easy. So I picked out Jane Austen’s Emma to lose my written-word religion. Curiosity only took me past the first two minutes and my thoughts about audio books remained the same before and after the experiment.

Listening, like reading, requires active participation of your senses if you wish to assimilate the true beauty of the work. While music enhances mundane activities like driving by providing background joy, I do not expect the same to happen with background recitation of my favorite books. The most significant difference between the two is that I’m listening to Long Nights in my car because Eddie Vedder recorded his masterful voice for my listening pleasure. Marcel Proust, on the other hand, spent hours writing In Search of Lost Time so that I could spend hours (realistically half a year and counting) reading him off the translated pages. Even if Proust had recorded a reading of his work, the audio version of his books would have been a wonderful accompaniment to my copies of the seven volumes and not my sole experience of them.

Lovers of audio books vouch for the simplicity of improving their weekly average and being able to complete more books than they could imagine doing by taking the time to read. “I listen while I cook”, a lady remarked while marveling at the ease of finishing nearly two books a week. Is it just me or are speed statistics the worst way to go about devouring books. Many books I’ve loved are imprinted in my mind not only because of the worlds they held but also my memory of life around the time I was reading them. How can I ever forget that after attempting to read War and Peace for years, I finally read it from beginning to end over three months when my little girl had begun to kick around in my belly? Then she popped out two days too soon on Tolstoy’s birthday. Oh the miracles of birth and a few good words.

And yet, maybe, just maybe, I will allow certain types of writing to be read to me. I could permit Bill Bryson to accompany my daily drive with The Lost Continent, his Travels in Small Town America.  I expect his voice will carry along all the humor his written words do. I also hear that Stephen Fry’s reading of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hoot. And who knows what wondrous things that can happen while Colin Firth whispers The End of the Affair in my ear.

Listening to a book may never replace the joy of finding the time and a quiet corner (or a crowded train) to pore over its pages (I have barely made peace with e-books). Audio pleasures will likely be restricted to the music people make, unless I find an audio-book gem that draws me in from the time I push play.

Do come away recitals. Surprise me.

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