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My Secret Stash of Books on Tape

Publication Date: 2005-01-03

Somehow it seems sad, even outragaeous, that the author feels it necessary to hide his identity. Audio books are a wonderful resource. I do all my yard work hooked up either to an audio book or a lecture. And often when I take a walk I'm also plugged in.

This essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3, 2005.

I'm an English professor, so of course I enjoy reading. But looking back on my childhood, I am certain that my interest in literature was stimulated not so much by reading books myself as by listening to recordings of other people reading them.

Neither of my parents had a college education, but they took me to the library long before I could read. There was always a stack of children's books in the house, and my mother must have read hundreds of them to me.

No doubt, the indestructible phonograph I received for Christmas around age 5 partly liberated my mother from my constant requests for her to read. Together we discovered the local library's collection of records of famous actors reading poems, plays, and short stories.

I particularly remember Basil Rathbone's readings of Poe and Hawthorne. I loved The Hobbit performed by Nicol Williamson and listened to it dozens of times. As I approached 10, I discovered the tragedies of Shakespeare with actors like Paul Scofield and Claire Bloom. I remember recovering from the flu while listening again and again to Anthony Quayle reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness. To this day I cherish an abridged version of Whitman's Leaves of Grass with each syllable enunciated and expanded to the limits of possible meaning by the booming voice of Orson Welles.

Perhaps there is something psychologically reassuring about listening to someone read a story. Hardly a day has passed in the last 30 years in which I have not heard a spoken-word recording of one kind or another. I go to sleep every night with the soothing sounds of a recorded book.

I got my first cassette tape recorder when I was about 12, and I immediately started making copies of the records from the library with a tiny microphone propped up in front of my phonograph's three-inch speaker. I used to listen to my collection of cassettes over and over again, until I had abridged versions of many classic works nearly memorized.

To this day I can half-recite, half-paraphrase Poe's The Cask of Amontillado and many of the most mellifluous passages in Shakespeare: "O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention ...." Sometimes I recite those passages (perhaps in the voice of Derek Jacoby) when I am driving long distances in my car. It transports me back to that childish feeling of the literary that Frank McCourt described as like "having jewels in your mouth."

There was a time in my mid-teens when I thought I could become a professional narrator. I used my minimum-wage earnings to buy an amplifier, a studio-quality microphone with a gooseneck stand, a double-tape deck, a stereo mixer, and a battery-powered reverb.

With that equipment, I could mix my own version of King Lear's ravings on the heath with a "sound effects" recording of a lightning storm. I also recorded some of the short stories of Poe in emulation of the immortal Rathbone. Screaming at the descent of the razor-sharp scimitar in The Pit and the Pendulum with my bedroom door closed, I convinced my parents that they had a very strange child indeed.

Of course I had no idea how one went about becoming a professional narrator. I chose my undergraduate college largely because it was close to home and it offered me a scholarship. I was too shy to consider acting in the theater department's stage performances, and there was no program in broadcasting.

Before the end of my first semester I learned that there was no room for dramatic readers in the hipper-than-thou world of small-time undergraduate radio. College forensics emphasized debate more than dramatic interpretation. So I became an English major by default. At least I could write about the works to which I liked to listen.

Five days a week, I took two buses and the subway -- 90 minutes each way -- to the campus. But my commuting time was not wasted because I was able to listen to one or two unabridged recorded books each week on my Sony Walkman.

I became a regular rental subscriber to Recorded Books, Inc., Books-on-Tape, and Blackstone Audiobooks. They were the only companies that provided unabridged recordings of classics on tape.

I remember listening to one of my favorite narrators, Frank Muller, performing The Great Gatsby as I rode the elevated train. The tops of row houses, church steeples, and abandoned factories marched by while Muller's voice portrayed the pathos of Gatsby's longing for the life he could never genuinely attain. (I was saddened when Muller's career was halted by a serious motorcycle accident in 2001.)

I never told any of my professors that I "read" some of their assignments by listening to them on the subway. It seemed like cheating -- almost the equivalent of reading Cliff's Notes instead of the real book. Even today, I keep my large collection of recorded books hidden in a closet. I wonder how many professors of my generation share these experiences.

I wonder what my colleagues would think if they knew how much of my mental life is still enriched by spoken-word recordings. Listening to tapes while engaged in mindless but unavoidable activities, I get through about 30 books a year that I would not otherwise have read. It's almost like I'm sneaking in an extra half-lifetime of reading in the course of doing my ordinary chores, which have a way of getting done more thoroughly as a result of listening while I work.

There is no way I can justify devoting the next two weeks of bedtime reading to Tom Wolfe's new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. I have too much professional reading and course preparation to do. But I can permit myself to listen to all 25 hours of Wolfe's novel while I am in the shower, eating breakfast, and driving to and from work. And I think Dylan Baker's reading captures the characters with a level of skill that I could barely replicate in my imagination. More often than not, a good narrator enriches my experience of a book.

What's more, some works are just more suitable for listening than for silent reading. And one of the great pleasures of being an English professor is the opportunity to read passages from my favorite works aloud to my students.

I have to admit that I love the sound of my own voice, which I often compare with my mental recordings of the narrators I remember from my childhood. Can there be anything more fun in an English class than reading the gravedigger scene from Hamlet with different accents for students who are bored to tears with lifeless reading assignments in seemingly archaic prose? How many more of them could get hooked on literature by hearing Paradise Lost read aloud in all its magniloquent glory rather than slogging through it in resentful, somnolent silence?

Of course I think silent reading is important and needs to be encouraged. I read 10 books for every one that I listen to. But I suspect that young people, at all levels of education, might also benefit, as I did, from early introduction to recorded books.

In the past, the ability to concentrate on an unadorned text for long periods of time was largely possible because of a lack of more appealing alternatives. These days, many -- perhaps most -- undergraduates could only get through Crime and Punishment if they were locked in solitary confinement for two months.

There is no way to rewind history. The minds of our students are different from those of previous generations. But a lifelong love of literature is a good thing, even if it is experienced by other means than a solitary encounter with the printed page.


Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com

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