Wednesday, June 15, 2005

My summer reading (or listening?) list


By DAVID REINHARD
Express Staff Writer

There are life's eternal questions: What is truth? What's the purpose of life? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Boxers or briefs?

The one I've pondered the last five years: Is listening to a book "reading"?

It's the eternal question that hits me where I live each and every day and night. According to The New York Times' Amy Harmon, I'm not alone. The books-on-tape business is booming, and with it the debate about whether listening to an audio book -- dare we say "book"? -- constitutes reading. It's an issue that can ruin the daintiest wine-and-cheese do.

I understand the emotions that swirl around the issue. My wife and I were on our way into a party last Christmas when we ran into someone in her old book group. The talk naturally enough turned to books, and the woman mentioned the group's most recent selection. Oh, I just listened to that on tape, I said enthusiastically. "Oh," she shot back, "that's not reading."

The boil-up of bile was immediate. My face must have flushed. I swallowed hard and said . . . nothing. I decided the better part of valor was to find the bar, but I was irked -- and I don't believe listening to a book is reading. I just didn't like the attitude.

That night I came to appreciate how important listening to (reading) audio books and lectures had become for me through the years. Curling up in bed with a book had always been a special pleasure, but doing so had become uncomfortable, the cause of neck and eye strain the next day. (I know, too much information.) Lying in bed with the headphones also proved a perfect way to contend with bouts of insomnia. In addition, audio books made solitary car trips much shorter. Overall, having someone read to you is its own special pleasure.

I remember the first book, Homer's "Odyssey," and so many more volumes since: Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization," Shelby Foote's "The Civil War," Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," George Stephanopoulos' "All Too Human" and Pat Conroy's "Beach Music."

I've listened to or read old and new works for the first time, and I've listened to or reread books I'd taken up long ago (Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which I appreciated more as literature after hearing them). All these works supplemented my other reading; I may not have gotten around to them but for folks at Books on Tape and Blackstone Audio Books. I know I would not have been able to take in the great college lectures that The Teaching Company makes available. (J. Rufus Fears, professor, on the great Romans and Greeks.)

I remember the words, and I remember the voices. In fact, what continues to astonish in these audio books are the voices; these performers can get so much out of one voice. My colleague, and fellow audio books buff, Mary Kitch notes that the right reader may not be able redeem a bad book, but a beautiful voice can make a so-so book riveting. Happily, there are many great books available with great readers. My recent favorite is Robert Whitfield reading Anthony Trollope's "Phineas Finn." Mary's favorite is on the top of my summer listening (reading?) list: Jeremy Irons reading Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited."

Is listening to a book reading? I'm not sure. "I've been listening to a book" just doesn't feel quite right, but I always hesitate when I say, "I've been reading . . ." an audio book.

If I were forced to answer the question, I'd say it's not reading, for anyone save the blind. (You want to pick a fight with the blind, be my guest.) What settles it for me? Not the tactile experience of reading -- really reading -- by lamplight, wonderful and distinct as that experience is. If I were a student assigned a piece of literature to master, I'd feel compelled to read -- really read and mark up -- the book, though I might want to give the audio version a listen, too.

I do know this for certain: Enjoying audio books is a lower-order exercise, but it doesn't deserve the scorn of sniffy traditionalists. Audio reading may well be a way to take in more literature than you might otherwise -- what can be wrong with that? -- and it's often an edifying pleasure.

Is listening to a book reading? It reminds me of that other eternal question: Is it real or is it Memorex?

In the end, does it matter?




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