The Sounds that Books Make

Claire Fuqua Anderson

Feb 22, 2013

I used to think audiobooks were for little old ladies who were losing their vision. (Little old ladies, bless you! You are the readers of America.) I could understand the arguments for long commutes and multitasking, and I'd even consider myself partial to oral storytelling, still remember listening as a kid to Charlotte's Web and The Hobbit. I like going to public readings. There's no particular reason I didn't take to audiobooks earlier, but I didn't. And then I got a smartphone. I don't need to convince you of the self-satisfaction that doing more than one thing at the same time can bring. Nor need I extol the virtues of today's technology, convenience, fingertips, blah blah blah. I can't bring myself to say outright that my phone has changed my life, and instead prefer to think it's books that have changed my life. Again. As they always have. When I remember to let them. Around the same time I sold out for a touchscreen, I enrolled in a literature course on the nineteenth-century American novel. Turns out, any book first published in the US before 1923 is in the public domain. Which is to say, um, free. And those novels are big, bro, and I needed to cram reading into the cracks of my day whenever I could. Ten minutes at a time. Making lunch. Walking the dog. Stealth reading. On a professor's recommendation, I looked up LibriVox, a not-for-profit online database of audiobooks in the public domain all read by volunteers. Anyone can read a chapter or more of a book, record it from his/her shabby apartment in Long Island or Dublin or Shanghai, in any language, without training, and post it online. The result is a global grassroots literary/performing arts piece/huge auditory library. Now, let me stop a second and say I think there are reasons--really good reasons--to buy books, to shop at independent bookstores, to listen to the professionally read and recorded audiobooks made by publishing companies. But there are reasons, also, to listen to a book being read by someone who just wants to read it. Stuart Mills, who reads Moby-Dick on LibriVox, I picture living in Seattle, wearing a burgundy turtleneck and sitting on a leather sofa. I don't know why, but I do.
Listening is a different way of reading. I'm reminded of my first Walkman, the Christmas I was nine, how I slipped on the headphones and thumbed the tuner wheel of the radio and walked down the street from my uncle's house, taking the music with me. A few weeks ago I walked through a cemetery listening to The Scarlet Letter, and I doubt either would have been quite so creepy without the other. The world begins to complement the story, or maybe it's the other way around. Often I do not remember if I've heard this part or not and end up listening to the same chapter two or three times. This can be rather annoying. As with old-fashioned reading, the mind may wander as you listen. Sentences or even chapters will pass you by and you won't have a notion of their content. At first, wanting to catch every word, you may be tempted to rewind, but later you will not want to go to the trouble. I'd like to think that the sonorous effects of verbalized language can have their own meaning. Or that some lobe in the brain retains the background noise. That every word is absorbed somewhere. As the listener, you may read only at the same pace as the reader. You cannot skim faster than or skip ahead of the reader. When you start listening to audiobooks, you may miss your exit, your own driveway. You might end up on the side of the road, sobbing for a while. You may at times have the impression that Toni Morrison, who reads her own books, is riding with you in your car. Perhaps because Toni Morrison continues to flip the human heart inside out in front of you, you begin to suspect that you and she are starting to develop a friendship. You may not be able to shake this suspicion. You may not be entirely wrong.