In praise of the oldest form of literature, oral storytelling — by which I mean audio books
At a time when most of the focus in the literary world is on e-books, and whether they will completely supplant printed books and bookstores (and maybe eat the entire world), a piece in the Los Angeles Times reminds me how much I love audio books, and why you should, too.
When I first crept up on the subject of audio books, almost 25 years ago, they were still known generically as “book tapes.” As a lifelong reader and lover of books, I approached cautiously, skeptical that the spoken word could convey the pleasure and edification I derived from a bound volme.
Then it occurred to me that oral storytelling is the oldest form of literature — much of the Old Testament, Homer, Grimm’s fairy tales and other ancient literature originated as spoken word. Somehow this made it all right to give audio books a try. And like a crack addict, I was hooked on first exposure.
Right away I saw that a book, novel or nonfiction, read by a good reader (usually an actor, sometimes the author) had the same capacity to take me out of my quotidian existence as sitting down with the printed page. I could see the action in my mind, effortlessly visualize characters and settings, and find myself provoked by unbidden thoughts and associations.
The experience was so powerful that I decided if I listened to an unabridged audio book, I could in all honestly then say I had “read” that book. True, listening to an audio book is in some ways different from reading — translating the narrative into images and thoughts draws on different parts of the brain — but it is no better, no worse, a matter of aesthetic equality.
The fundamental reason to listen to an audio book is that it takes hours that might otherwise be idle or wasted — say, commuting alone in a car — and makes them useful and entertaining. When I lived first in Miami, then West Palm Beach, while commuting to work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I found I could double the number of books I read in a year.
Audio books has exposed me to a wealth of literature, of all kinds, that I probably would have gotten to in the usual way. This is especially true of a popular fiction — mysteries and thrillers — that I almost never pick up for my own pleasure reading. Some books I discovered this way: The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson; Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain; Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter; Vanished, by Joseph Finder; The High Window, by Raymond Chandler.
But it’s not all been bestsellers, noir masterpieces and potboilers. I found Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being this way (and I still think about it, 22 years later), as well as Peter Gay’s magisterial biography, Frued: A Life for Our Time. My first exposure to Harry Potter was under the spell of Jim Dale’s virtuoso reading of Sorcerer’s Stone (I read the remaining books in their printed versions in order to review them).
I could go on — and I think I will: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Burgess Shale; Jesus Son, by far Denis Johnson’s best book; Helen Hunt Jackson’s regional classic, Ramona; Georges du Maurier’s Trilby; Oleg Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit; Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (an all-time favorite); Mark Harris’s unsurpassed baseball novels (The Southpaw; Bang the Drum Slowly; It Looked Like Forever); Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains; Bernard de Voto’s one-volume abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark; Susanna Clarke’s brilliant adult fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
You get the idea. Audio books are a great way to enlarge your literary horizons. With that in mind, I think I will start reviewing audio titles here from time to time, say once a month. Meanwhile, please share your experiences with audio books. And if you happen to disapprove of them, please let us know why.