The Web site of the town stacks, Fayetteville Public Library, offers to e-mail patrons about new arrivals. A couple of months ago I signed up for the non-musical recordings notification to help me grab new book-on-CD titles. The shelves increasingly are picked over every time I stop by, at least for volumes I’d want. Have I really read/heard all that interests me?
No. The library is not buying many. But it’s not necessarily a cost of our Good Depression. The library is acquiring a number recorded books, but they’re mostly in the juvenile section. The FPL emails one to three notices a week, generally each containing five titles and synopses of a couple dozen words. Until this week, roughly one in 10 is for the main stack and the other nine are “YA’s,” for Young Adult. (Ten adult titles were announced this week, finally.) How to tell? If you click on their links you see the online card entry stating YA, yet that initial listing often mentions either teenagers or vampires.
Sometimes teenage vampires.
Who am I to begrudge the education of young people? It seems — though it may just be appearances — that fewer kids read anything outside of class. Duffs like me can worry when the kids can’t be bothered with what’s given us enlightened pleasure, books. But does listening to CD recordings or MP3 files constitute reading? This might be a case of “Audio books are OK for me, a grown-up, who has to commute and has less time than ever to sit with a paper-and-ink book. I bet though that both youngsters and their parents would say that the youth is busier these days as well. Nah: Those newfangled i-Mod clocks of theirs have 13 hours in them.
What’s lost when a book is digested through the ears and not the eyes?
My commutes would be filled either with public radio news or music otherwise. I stay fairly well informed so newscasts aren’t as vital. Tunes from FM or my own recordings lull me when I need all my senses for Interstate 540. Thus, narrations. I veer in two directions, page-turners and books I’ve long meant to read (both classic and current). Right now I am two-thirds through the 18 discs of Moby Dick, which works great with a narrator. If you’ve had trouble with William Faulkner on the page, you might find listening to his novels not only engrossing but funny. Herman Melville? His first-person narrator is a second-rate sailor yet first-class wiseacre. Who knew?
Maybe audio books don’t stunt the literary development of the young. As long as they absorb great books, whose business is the format? Surely it’s better to listen to unabridged classics than either to rely on Cliffs Notes or movie adaptations, which by necessity leave so much out. I’m not such a duffer to rule out electronic books; I can’t see much difference between reading a book on Kindle or an iPhone and my big brother’s old paperback of The Great Gatsby that he read for class. The latter of course has the odor of authenticity. Warm plastic and solder has nothing on yellowing pages, dust and a trace of mildew.
My Beloved tries the occasional audio book but they’re not the necessity for driving that they’ve become for me. She’s completed a very few nonfiction titles on her commutes. For our road trips, I’ve checked out three or four at a time, hoping one sustains her interest. At best, we get most of the way through one set, abandoning the others after 10 to 30 minutes. She won’t like them, get bored, or we get to talking and forget to hit play again and finish the set. On the last trip, in March, the winner was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She’s never read it; it’s one of the few novels I enjoy rereading. It is a small novel and recorded fills just four 70-minute discs. But as usual between meals and c-store breaks — and conversation — we did not finish the the last disc.
MB asked me how it ended. Our mutual listening stopped just after the climactic car accident. I began to tell her, but the phone rang or something and she hasn’t asked me to finish telling her. That turned out to be a relief.
To tell her Jay Gatsby this, Nick Carraway that and Daisy Buchanan the other ruins the book in any format. Gatsby is bigger than its plot and characters. Who can summarize Fitzgerald’s prose poetry and how that fleshes out the themes of youth and alienation, and how class functions in classless America, better than Scott himself?
You risk losing your audience if you insist on explaining the green light on the dock. You can’t answer the “Then what happened?” by reciting the best sentences, ranging from, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made,” to, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I’ve listened to audio books for about 10 years of 20-minute one-way work commutes. The format took months to get used to. Even now the wrong or incompetent narrator — authors rarely can pull it off themselves — kills it.
Yet now that I’m hooked on audio books, I know I get nearly everything I’d get out of print versions. Perhaps MB has not passed that learning curve. And teenagers, whom the library is favoring with set after set? Must be evolution.