Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Listening to Books

Last weekend, I spent several hours alone driving back and forth to Lubbock, Texas, for a music-theory conference.  (You can't imagine how exciting these are!)  In the last few years, my preferred entertainment on these long drives consists of listening to recorded books.  I tried audiobooks for the first time just a few years ago and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it and how much I was able to pay attention without constantly having to press "rewind."

For a while I stuck with whatever I could find at the local public library.  Non-fiction worked best at first.  A book with short biographies of the American Presidents (by an author whose name I forget at the moment) interested me so much, I listened to it twice.  The essays on Pierce and Hayes stayed with me the most.  Tragedy marked Franklin Pierce's presidency: Having watched his son die in a train wreck on his way to the capital city to be inaugurated, Pierce later approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, negating the peace-keeping Compromise of 1820, and watched the beginning of the final rapid decline of the nation toward civil war.  After his term, hated by both North and South, he claimed to see no reason to live and wasted his remaining years in drunkenness.  Rutherford B. Hayes, by contrast, left his mostly unremarkable term as Chief Executive with the thought that a former President ought to have some cache for achieving good in this world and used his to establish schools for black children in the South.  While many people in the last few years have called Carter the best ex-President, my vote goes to Hayes.

Other highlights from the non-fiction shelves include Cal Ripken Jr's autobiography (how hard it was, he says, to teach our children not to talk with strangers when strangers constantly approached me with only the friendliest of intentions), a biography of Lou Gehrig (Hollywood thought of having him play Tarzan until they found that he looked too muscular in a loincloth), and Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods read by the author himself (don't take a backpack full of Snickers on your hike up the Appalachian Trail).  The Greatest Generation brought tears to my eyes several times, and Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue ended with one of the best stories I've ever heard.

Even the best audiobooks didn't always completely satisfy, though.  Eric Simonson's account of his search on Everest for lost mountaineer George Mallory fascinated me, but what I heard made it clear that I needed to see the actual print book for the key photo.  Nothing can express the horrifying danger of climbing Everest like the photo of Mallory's frozen body, found clutching desperately for seventy-five years at a bank of ice sloping downward toward a thousand-foot sheer drop.

My first attempts at non-non-fiction didn't work so well.  I got lost among the details of a Brother Cadfael mystery and couldn't make any sense of the solution, and Shakespeare's sonnets proved too dense to listen to one after the other.  I followed Wuthering Heights much better -- too well, in fact.  The stunning performance by Patricia Routledge (the fecklessly striving Hyacinth Bucket from BBC's hilarious Keeping Up Appearances) rendered the angst of Heathcliff and Catherine so intensely, I could barely stand listening to the painful story.  I'm sure the printed word mollifies the pummeling emotional effect of the tale quite a bit, but I don't plan on finding out soon.

But after this I hit a fictional hot streak.  The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Morality for Beautiful Girls, and The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith all had me completely charmed with their rambling plots, exotic-yet-familiar settings, and fascinating characters wrestling with problems of being good and doing good in this world.  Jeremy Irons's reading of Brideshead Revisited made one of the twentieth century's best novels even better; Irons got to play one part in the classic miniseries, and in the audiobook he played all of them.  I was especially amazed at the ease with which he raised the pitch of his voice for the female characters without ever sounding like members of a certain British comedy troupe.  Conversely, Davina Porter's expert performance of even the male characters in Anna Karenina helped me get through that beautiful but extremely lengthy tome -- well, that and a couple of flights to England.

Last year I discovered a new, free source of audiobooks: librivox.com.  (The best place to search and sample their catalog is on the Internet Archive.)  All the recordings are done by volunteers: you yourself could read a book for them to make available to the world.  But while one might think the quality of readings by well-meaning yet unpaid enthusiasts would range from charmingly mediocre to brain-gratingly dreadful, my first experience with librivox was perfect: a lovely actress named Mil Nicholson reading Dickens's Dombey and Son.  Florence was sweet but not cloying, Mrs. Chick was arch but not melodramatic.  Captain Cuttle was three-dimensionally present with me in the car, he was so good.  And I will always imagine Mr. Toots's byword, "It is of no consequence," in the voice Ms. Nicholson gave him.  I wrote to Mil Nicholson recently to thank her for volunteering her eminent talents; she kindly responded and suggested I try some of her other Dickens novels available on librivox.

Sadly, David Copperfield is not among them.  I'll not comment on the quality of the unpaid readers who took turns reading the chapters I listened to last weekend except to say that this great novel's beauty runs so deep, it flows freely through any amateur performance and even (the readers of some chapters forced me to it) through the mechanical reading of the Kindle.

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