I believe in recorded books, in hearing words read aloud, along with the inflections that bring all of the nuances of a story to life.
I discovered this when my son started middle school. I’ve always felt that time in the car is time wasted. I’d much rather be outside deadheading flowers or in the kitchen cooking a new soup. To entertain myself during the afternoon drive to my son’s school, I started borrowing books on tape from the library. My first one was also one of my favorites – The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which included a spine-tingling story, complete with candles and creaking branches, as well as an enthralling introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explaining the real-life detective work that went into proving this may be the only novel by a female African American slave.
The funny thing was that this wasn’t the type of story I would ordinarily read, in the traditional way, with my eyes. I quickly realized that recorded books could introduce me to authors and topics I might not otherwise approach. Soon to follow was Neal Bascomb’s A Perfect Mile, which had me cheering Roger Bannister as he ran past the finish line, despite the fact that I’ve never been much of an athlete. Another surprise was how caught up I got in the beauty and suspense of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Finder,” even though I’d never even considered touching sci-fi/fantasy before. Darker tales, too, have become more accessible to me. I might not have finished Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, if it weren’t for Peter Francis James’s wonderful narration, which, like a hand holding a needle, pulled me through the fabric of the story.
Listening to books has made me a more ambitious visual reader as well. Lately I’ve been taking on Charles Dickens, an author I hadn’t visited since the days when there was a test at the end of the semester. I’ve also recently dipped my toe into scientific study by reading Janet Browne’s book on Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Even if they weren’t so broadening, books on tape have the advantage of making a tedious task more entertaining. Every time I walk through my yellow hallway, I remember painting it while listening to Diane Johnson’s French farce Le Marriage, and I actually volunteered to wash the after-dinner dishes so that I’d have an excuse to hear A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
For many adults, listening to a book is best left to preschoolers sitting cross-legged on the floor. It’s something that intelligent, dignified people just don’t do – like living at home after the age of 21 or licking the bottom of the ice cream bowl. But recorded books have introduced me to characters who are separated from me by geography, time, and experience. I believe in them because I like to learn, to feel connected, to care about someone different from myself. Or maybe it’s because I’ve never outgrown the need to sit down and hear a good story.
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