Reading better than being read to
Every couple of months, I meet my next-door neighbor at the coffee shop and we catch up. The first wrong thing is that, except for waves from the car, those occasional meetings are the only time I see her. The second wrong thing is these chats remind me of how much I miss books.
We’ll sit down with our coffee and Suzanne will ask what I’ve been reading, and usually I have to scratch around in my head to come up with something. And then she’ll name a whole shelf of novels she’s read and I’ll think: What’s become of me?
I founded two book clubs, participated in discussions of dozens of novels both great and awful. I moved away from the first, and they’re still reading. The second took a break when I got cancer. Every few days I rekindle thoughts of getting us back together, but I’m not sure I could read a whole book in a month. Teaching three college courses has left me with stacks of papers to grade and lectures to prepare. My reading pleasure these days is the New York Times Sunday paper, and even that takes me all week to munch through.
I was headed on a road trip during spring break last week, and I saw those hundreds of miles as book time. In a different universe, people like me would be able to read in cars without getting sick, but I live in this universe, and if I were to read, I wouldn’t make it out of my zip code without having to give up.
Audio books! It’s not the same as reading – I’ve never thought so – but it’s words and imagination, and a girl can take only so much of ’70s music on satellite radio. And so I went to the library and filled two bags. (It doesn’t seem right that the boxes holding an audio novel would be so much larger than the novel itself, the words on the discs being tiny electrical specks and the words in the books being thick ink and heavy paper.) I started the trip with an array of choices: mysteries and history and Hemingway and a romance. What goes with gray morning skies?
Crime novelist James Lee Burke, one of my favorites. Reading his words on the page, I can see everything he sees, and he’s never too beautiful. The actor doing the reading was gruff and clipped, and skilled at changing voices for characters. Chapter One set the scene, Chapter Two brought the return of Burke’s constant protagonist Dave Robicheaux. Chapter Three brought the inevitable murder.
Chapter Four brought the eject button.
What was it? The plot was fine, the writing the usual Burke excellence. But as the miles passed and the ribbon of road spooled the story into my mind, it all felt too much. Maybe having a dark male voice tell me the details of a murder just felt harsh. Reading about crisis in my own head is softer; I can take it in as slowly as I want.
I tried another novel, a beachy romance written and read by a woman. The writing was not the kind I enjoyed, and I’d seen these characters a hundred times before.
By the time I got to Hemingway, I was driving through an icy rain and the “Snows of Kilimanjaro” was the last thing I wanted to conjure. There were five other audio books waiting in the back seat, but I ignored them and turned on the radio.
Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood to hear someone read me a book. Or maybe, as I suspect, hearing a book isn’t the nearly the same as seeing it – both in your mind and on the page. The next chance I get, I’m returning the James Lee Burke CD to the library, and swapping it for the real thing.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.