Haute Dish The Arts & Literature Magazine of Metropolitan State University red flower
Summer 2005




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heard but not seen
Anne Aronson

“I love the book I’m reading now, Nickel and Dimed. I just can’t believe how much Barbara Ehrenreich was able to pack into just eight hours,” I say to a friend.

“Eight hours?”

Welcome to the world of audio books, where pages are minutes, voices work directly on the eardrum, and the snap of a closing volume is the click of an iPod shutting down. It’s a world where the written word isn’t fixed on the page, but floats on a current of sound.

I discovered audio books last summer, when, like countless other middle-aged people, I resolved to walk my way to a longer and healthier life. As I set out on my walks, I’d fill my pockets with keys, a mangled dollar bill and a cell phone--in case I ran into a tornado or an 8-year old bicyclist on a rampage. After a few days of this, however, I became incredibly bored. If I had to look at that same prissy petunia patch one more time. . .

The answer was audio books. I went to the library and took out the longest piece of contemporary fiction I could find—Jonathan Franzen’s magnificent novel, The Corrections, recorded on 15 audio cassettes. Now I left my cell phone at home and stuffed my pockets with tapes. My walks became blissful, as I listened to Franzen’s acidic portrait of a dysfunctional Midwestern family unfold between my ears. I was hooked.

Soon I graduated to digital files and purchased an MP3 player. My thirteen-year old son promptly told his friends that his MOTHER had an iPod mini. This seems like a grand injustice to a generation which feels it owns Apple’s hipster product. His friends’ envy, however, was replaced by shock when he told them the news: “She doesn’t listen to music. She listens to BOOKS!”

Listening to books is surprisingly different from reading them. Some features are downright annoying. It’s difficult, for example, to review an earlier passage or jump forward to something you haven’t heard yet. This causes me a bit of anxiety. I’m used to rereading, highlighting, and dog-earing. With audio books, however, I just have to let go. I’ve learned to sacrifice my need to conserve every word of an author. Instead I live recklessly, savoring an exquisite sentence or heart-stopping insight for one moment and one moment only.

Audio books live or die according to who is reading the text. One time I downloaded a book by Molly Ivins only to find that the narrator couldn’t begin to capture the butt-kicking, truth-telling voice of this Texas oracle. Unfortunately, I may never learn the history of Islam, because the narrator of the audio book I bought on the subject put me to sleep even while I was jogging on a treadmill. A good narrator is a national treasure. When I listened to The Secret Life of Bees, I became the body of the teenage protagonist, Lily Owen, and I breathed the air of her adopted home of Tiburon, South Carolina. And when, while mowing the lawn, I listened to Bill Bryson narrate his own book about Australia, I almost severed a foot I was laughing so hard.

Right now I’m listening to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. The novel is about two Afghan boys who grow up in the 1970s, before the Russian invasion and subsequent takeover by the Taliban. Hosseini narrates the book himself. It is full of Farsi words--places, names, foods, articles of clothing, and numerous cultural and religious practices. On the page the words sit there, transliterated lumps--how do you pronounce Wazir Akbar Khan? When Hosseini speaks them, however, they become three-dimensional, a shiny fabric with folds, tucks, and gathers. Even the word Kabul, everyday fare in the Western mass media, has corners and colors I never knew about until I heard the word spoken by a native writer.

And so tonight I will listen to Hosseini in the dark as I inch toward sleep, wrapping myself in Afghan culture, blanketing myself with the unbearably sweet sound of his words.

Maybe my son was wrong. Maybe when I plug in my iPod, I do listen to music.

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