heard but not
“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.
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