A few years ago I went through a period of listening to books on tape and CD. I didn’t know at first how this would work for me. I’m not the kind of reader who gets lost in a book; my mind usually races from one thing to another as I read, and I often find I have to go back and reread a paragraph. So I wasn’t sure whether I could follow a tape without constantly rewinding. But the library had just expanded and reorganized its audiobooks, and there they all sat just waiting to be borrowed. I surprised myself when I found that my attention latched on to a voice more than it usually does to ink on the page.
I listened mostly in the car on my way to and from the office. But I also took audiobooks on long car drives. One year I listened to Anna Karenina on two trips to conferences in Texas and a round trip flight to and from England.
The skill and style of the person reading made a huge difference in my level of enjoyment. I listened to Cal Ripken Jr.’s autobiography in spite of a dull reader, just because the content was so interesting. But I gave up on the same reader’s rendition of Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure.
On the other hand, I got to hear Bill Bryson read a couple of his own books: A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. Knowing that I was listening to the author himself seemed to amplify all effects. The story, for instance, of his friend Katz filling his backpack with Snickers bars for a multi-day hike on the Appalachian trail made me laugh and ache at the same time, knowing that the frustration I heard in the reader’s voice was not just performed but actually relived.
Jeremy Irons should win some kind of award for his reading of Brideshead Revisited. He won an Oscar for playing the normal number of roles – namely, one – in Reversal of Fortune. But in reading Waugh’s great classic, he played at least a dozen, all carefully differentiated in pitch, tone, and cadence. Much, much less known but perhaps even more talented, a lovely woman named Mil Nicholson read Dombey and Son and made it available online for free. She hit the wonderful Captain Cuttle spot on, and her vocal rendition of Mr. Toots will now forever serve as my model Toots, against which all other Tootses must now be measured. An actor can be too good, though. Patricia Rutledge’s portrayal of the snobby Hyacinth Bucket makes Keeping Up Appearances one of my favorite TV shows ever. But she put so much romantic angst and desperation into her reading of Wuthering Heights, I ended up wishing I had read it instead and thus had the medium of the silent, written page to tone down the histrionics of Catherine and Heathcliff.
One of the most unforgettable scenes in the books I listened to came up in Conrad Anker’s The Lost Explorer. In 1924, Sir George Mallory said he wanted to climb Mount Everest because it was there. He went up and definitely got within a few hundred yards of the summit, but never came down. In 1999, Anker found Mallory’s body, frozen and mummified, face down with his fingers dug into the scree on a slope that led down to a 6,000-foot drop. What an image!
Today I just finished watching a documentary about Anker. I thought it was going to tell the same story but with pictures. Well, the footage was indeed spectacular, as was the 3D CGI that helped visualize the route of the expeditions. But Anker found Mallory’s body in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The next eighty minutes or so told the story of a 2007 expedition in which Anker tried to follow Mallory’s path with Mallory’s equipment to determine whether he might have reached the summit before meeting his death. When Anker searched Mallory’s clothing in ’99, he didn’t find a photo of Mallory’s wife, and Mallory had vowed to place the photo on the peak when he reached it, a situation suggesting that Mallory was on the way back down from the summit when he fell. Of course Anker didn’t find a photograph atop the mountain, which would have settled the question, but he did determine that the most difficult barrier near the top could have been bested with Mallory’s equipment. That only tells us, though, that Everest might have been conquered twenty-nine years before the first official climb, by Hillary and Norgay in 1953.