I let the line fall, as if fly fishing at dusk and with a full creel. "Oh, I listened to Saturday," I might mumble, racing over the word "listened," hoping not to get a strike. Or "I just listened to Alan Furst's Red Gold."
"You listened to it? So you didn't actually read it, then?"
Audio books are now an $8 billion a year business, but lunkers still boil the water and snap their jaws. Listening is shameful. Reading, apparently, is courageous, the rough equivalent of a cavalry charge. I've seen reading done. If readers resemble warriors at all, the warriors they resemble are dead: supine bodies spread over armchairs, sofas—and in bed.
Listening to William Dement's The Promise of Sleep, I learned how tired we all are. Fatigue, not alcohol, caused the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. We get an hour-and-a-half less sleep every night than our grandparents did. Settle down with a fat novel and you feel this in your bones. Whereas, with an audio book, you can move about, remain conscious.
Yes, it's possible to listen and not to hear. It's also possible to skim a book, or—worse yet—to claim knowledge of one you haven't even cracked.
Now that "the check's in the mail" has been rendered obsolete, I propose "I read that book" as the second most common lie in the language. The first of course is: "You've lost weight!"
Yes, yes, children are read to and, yes, the audio books industry was started for the blind and infirm. But origins shouldn't be held against us. Remember that our much-vaunted species is supposed to have sprung from a brackish tidal pool, or—if you're religious—from mud.
I first became a feverish consumer of audio in the early 1980s. For me, a slow reader, the audio book has been like the invention of the wheel. Where I had jounced and stalled, I now moved smoothly. Worlds denied to my weak eyes and slow-processing equipment were pried open. I felt like Keats looking into Chapman's Homer, or Dylan Thomas in "Fern Hill":
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
I've listened to tens of thousands of audio books. Certainly, there have been cruel abridgements and hammy actors. I maintain, however, that an excellent performance can be better than the text.
Reading Nabokov's Lolita to myself, I viewed the agony from a distance and with condescension. When Jeremy Irons did the reading, he got under my skin. Then for me, as for Humbert Humbert, "She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock."
Move your eyes to the top of that first page. "My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta." Is this a book to be looked at, or spoken out loud?
I can't ask Nabokov, but Alan Furst told me he writes to sound. "I find myself dry-mouthed after a couple of hours of writing." The sound of another voice can lead one out of oneself.
Retired Sports Illustrated editor Peter Carry didn't turn to talking books until he found himself at Lenox Hill Hospital with a urinary tract infection. He put Alan Furst's Red Gold into his Walkman: "I've got all these monitors I'm attached to, which complicated the fact that I felt like I had to go to the bathroom about once every seven minutes. I knew this book and had read it. And yet the reading of the book [by Richard Matthews] was so good it just riveted me, and it got me through this awful night. "After a while," said Carry, "I was glad I was awake."
In The Gutenberg Elegies, his dazzling 1994 collection of essays on reading, Sven Birkerts speculates that the literature of the future may be "bound up with the audio process." Refreshed by a swim in Walden Pond, Birkerts put a cassette of Walden into his car player and drove. "I felt myself soaring. The words streamed in unmediated, shot like some kind of whiskey into my soul."
I liked that line so much, I had to stop myself and read it again. Out loud.