Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Chapter 16.
His voice takes away my voice.
His imagination limits my imagination.
Audio books, for years I've heard people rave about audio books. Thoughtful, clever people, who love books and read a lot, people whose opinions I can respect even when we disagree, have declared their affection for audio books. I just don't get it.
I've made several attempts over the years, and every time within a few minutes I have been left so cold and bored that I can continue to pay attention only by the force of will. This is not a case of what I think of as Great Band Aporia -- you know, when you hear lots of people talk about how great a certain band is, but you can't for the life of you imagine why anyone would believe this. It's different because in Great Band Aporia you regard the general opinion as something of a delusion to which you are, thankfully, quite superior. And you think this way because the band itself just doesn't seem that remarkable to you. The songs, the performances, they're just not that good.
But that's not the case for me with audio books. I used to have an unabridged version of Derek Jacobi reading The Iliad. Now I love The Iliad. It's a titanic work about the consequences of human choices, and the horror and the beauty that arise from them, often side by side. And Derek Jacobi is one of the great actors of our day, with an absolutely marvelous voice. His Hamlet for the BBC long ago is amazing, and his performance in Breaking the Code on Broadway was the best thing I've ever seen. He even played a hilariously bad Shakespearean ham on Frasier. What a perfect match he and Homer seemed. But not for me. It wasn't long before I was just as cold and bored as I was listening to some bland heartless drone of a reader reciting contemporary popular fiction. I was very disappointed, but not in Derek Jacobi.
Currently I am trying again. I am listening to Christopher Lee reading The Children of Húrin by Tolkien. Again this is a work of which I am very fond, and a tale with which I am quite familiar. Christopher Lee is also well known to be a great aficionado of Tolkien. These are the reasons I chose this particular book. I hoped it might help. And then, too, there's that rich and resonant voice, which it is a pleasure to listen to, mostly. Some of the characterizations he attempts with it, especially of women, are rather strange and, I think, unsuccessful. He makes the character of Morwen, a stern, strong, sad woman, sound like Miss Havisham on laudanum. And he is a little too zealous in his pronunciations of elvish words, with that all too sober glee that proclaims "See, I know how to say this word." I am reminded of NPR reporters who insist on overdoing the accent when pronouncing a South American dignitary's name, as if saying a Spanish name meant they had stopped speaking English for the space of two or three words. But these criticisms are of Lee, not the audio book itself. After a minute of two I can barely make myself listen.
A few years back I often worked on Sunday mornings, and on the drive in I would listen to Selected Shorts on NPR. If you don't know, Selected Shorts is a live recording of short stories, commonly read by actors, to a studio audience. Though I started listening at first largely because it was there, I kept on listening because I became interested in my own reaction to it. You see, it didn't matter if the actor read the story well. It didn't matter if I thought the story was clever or well done or interesting. I reacted to every one just as I did to audio books.
It seems I don't like being read to, even if I think the material is good and being read well. In fact it may be worse if I do like the material. But why? It's a matter of voice and imagination. When I read, there's a voice somewhere in my head that is a combination of the narrator and myself. This voice involves my imagination with the story. I am directly engaged. But when someone else is reading the book for me, my voice is taken from me. My voice is no longer telling me the story through my own imagination. The reader's voice is substituted and the reader's imagination limits mine.
I am shut out. I am used to getting lost inside a book, so much so that I jump if addressed or if the phone rings. And it doesn't matter what kind of fiction it is, so long as it's good. I can get just as lost inside Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day or A. S. Byatt's Possession, both terrific books, as I can inside Homer or Tolkien. It's only when I can do this that I understand the words of Machiavelli about reading that I quoted in an earlier post -- "I enter ... and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born."
It's that voice that makes this food mine alone, so much so that I was born for it. Without it, I go hungry. But I'm glad I had the opportunity to figure this out, since it makes me appreciate that voice and my imagination and my love of books all the more.
The Children of Húrin
Breaking The Code
A. S. Byatt