Thursday, September 06, 2012

Big Audio Bibliophile

When I was out for my walk today, as I took this photo on the left, I was thinking of all the little changes that life offers. Not the big ones, but the little funny ones that seep into your bloodstream and become part of you before you're even aware of it, the smallest revolutions of the mind and the body. One of the many things that has altered over the past two years of my new vagabond life, is that I read almost 150% more than I did when I lived and worked in New York. I always read poetry, sometimes more than 5 books of poems a week, and I always read my favorite poetry books over and over again, nightly even, but now that I've journeyed to the outskirts, I've fallen in love with the long form again, the fiction books, the memoirs, the mysteries, the fantasies, all of it. 

Not only do I have a book that I read by my bed, but I also have a book that I'm listening to. When I take the dog for a walk into our neighbor's tree farm (Thanks, Tom!), or when I'm driving through town, or when I'm cleaning, doing the dishes, making dinner, and so on, there is very often an audio book playing in my headphones or through the speaker. My best friends back in the city like to tease me about this. I'll say, "I read this great book!", to which they'll reply, "You READ it? Or you LISTENED to it?" They want to make sure that I'm aware of the distinction, that I don't go around saying I read two novels a week, when in fact I've listened to one novel, and read the other. I understand their concern, and I very much appreciate the difference. They are each entirely independent visceral experiences. However, that doesn't discount the incredible pleasure I get from listening to a well-written unabridged novel, with a gorgeous, layered story, read by a talented multi-dimensional narrator. 

It started when I had to pack up my apartment for my sub-letter (sigh, and now the apartment is no longer mine). I had a month to go through everything I had accumulated over the twelve years I lived in Brooklyn. Papers, cocktail napkins with poems and lists, pictures, and so many shoes. So so so many shoes. A woman I worked with connected me with her friend who worked for a large publishing house. She, very very sweetly, sent me a dozen or so audio books that she had laying around the office in order to congratulate me on my decision to write full time. (Supportive strangers? I could not, I repeat, could not, live without them.) In the bunch was Jonathan Franzen's, Freedom. All 24 hours and 14 minutes of it. Read by David LeDoux. It kept me company during the sorting and the filing and the terrible throwing away. I was hooked.

I have always loved being read to. When I was little my dad would read stories and make up stories for us before we went to bed, my mom read to us all the time, and my stepdad read books to us with such talent and enthusiasm that sometimes we'd be too wound up by the story to go to bed. Oh Ramona & Beezus, Oh Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, let them go on forever. Sometimes, I think it's why I've always liked to attend poetry readings and fiction readings, so that I could hear someone reading out loud. But have you ever been to a reading where the author doesn't get it right. You think, "Wow, that's your own work, and you're not doing it justice!" I have. Now, imagine if the author reads in such a voice that the story unfolds so beautifully and smoothly that an entire eight hour drive could go by in the blink of an eye. That's how I feel about audio books.  

Of all the great new habits I've developed in my new outlaw-style of living, listening to audio books might be in the top five. It gives me more "reading time," and it deepens my appreciation for old classics I've already read. It allows me explore other genres that I might otherwise ignore, because they might be an enjoyable road trip book, or because I know the narrator is going to be good. Seriously. Who doesn't want to hear Neil Gaiman reading, Neverwhere? (I can hear him saying, "Richard Mayhew" right now.)

I know that there are people who listen to audio books because they are visually impaired, or recovering from illness, or who have trouble with the written word because of disabilities, but I would suggest that even if you are perfectly happy to read a good book in its original, beautifully designed hard cover edition, you might also want to listen to a good book, too, when you get a chance. If the narrator is solid, the power of the story will come through, if the writing is beautiful, the writing will be read to bring out the full complexity of its music. If it's read by the author, you'll get insight on not only that persons weird extraordinary brain, but also the way he or she hears things like dialogue and rhythm. Sometimes, I've read the hard copy AND listened to the audio version just so I can really focus on what the author is doing, it's an extraordinary experience. The Sun Also Rises read by William Hurt, is wonderful. Ever want to revisit Virginia Woolf's, To the Lighthouse? This is a good new way to do it.

Perhaps, and I'm not ashamed to admit this though I probably should be, I also love listening to books because sometimes my brain is just too damned loud. Don't get me wrong, I love a quiet space; that's the place I write from. I love the meditative dark that I have inside me when a real self-aware silence comes. But sometimes, when I've had  to clean out the basement or pack up an apartment, my nutty, sometimes torturous thoughts come at me so hard and fast and furious, that it's nice to be guided into someone else's story, someone else's epic imagination. In the last couple months I listened to both Dark Places, and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and, though they are both deeply disturbing, they were also incredibly well written and fiercely truthful. Cheryl Strayed's, Wild just graced my ear buds last week and it made me want to hike a million miles. Simply put, in these two years I've developed a new addiction, yet another delicious way to surround myself with words. And that sounds pretty good to me.

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