I recently went on a long-distance road trip, driving alone across the country from Oregon to Brooklyn and back. While I alternated between taking the interstates and slipping along back roads, I decided to include, for my first time ever, a little literary entertainment on my sojourn, initially to help pass the interstate miles. You see, going nearly eight thousand miles on just music didn’t sound so appealing. I mean, of course I would keep some tunes going at times, but I figured I would change it up a little. So, my wife talked me into subscribing to Audible and giving it a try. She is a huge fan of this and can often be found listening to books as she cooks and gardens.
But what books to choose, is the question. So, after a bit of thought, I came up with a pair of titles I would like to listen to. One I had read before, and one I always wanted to read. These were given very little thought beyond “I get two books for free when I start an Audible account.” Well, one thing leads to another, and I ended up with more than two, five to be exact. And some were good for listening to, and others not so good. Not necessarily due to the writing of the original volume, but the audible qualities of it. Lets dive into them, OK?
The five books, in the order that I downloaded them are:
- The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
- War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronical – Haruki Murakami
- The Quiet American – Graham Greene
- The Cold Six Thousand – James Ellroy
Quite a list, no? Well, I need meaty books at this time in my life, and these would fit the bill.
So, lets look at each book.
The Name of The Rose was the book that put Umberto Eco on the literary map. Published in 1980, it was a true international sensation. The story of strange and sinister goings on at a medieval abbey, it is the tale of a religious mystery wrapped around a series of murders. Weaving back and forth between the daily religious life within the aforementioned abbey and the contemporary politics of the church, early intellectual life and grisly death, it is a tale well worth your time. And the Audible version is just as good. The narrator gives life to all of the characters and makes each clearly delineated by giving them different speech patterns and accents. This is a book well worth your listening time.
War and Peace. One of the most famous books of all time, I was eager to dive into this, but turned it off within ten minutes. Why, might you ask? Well, as I had never read it, I found that I couldn’t pay close enough attention to it and give it the attention that it deserves. And I found that listening to a book that I had no feel for was not a good thing, at least not while needing to pay attention to the road. So, that one is shelved for the time being. Sad, but there it is.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronical. A story of a man who looses his cat and, soon after, his wife. But in the search for both of them he gains an incredible understanding of both modern Japan and the actions of the Japanese military in Manchuria and Mongolia during the second world war. He also comes to see the beauty of the bottom of a well. After the failure of Tolstoy, I wanted to hear something both difficult and familiar, as I read this book around 20 years ago, and had found it challenging and wonderful then. So, like the Eco, I could dip in and out as I was listening, depending on road conditions. And for the most part this was quite successful, with only one of the voices jarring me. As in the case of The Name… the narrator creates a different vocal for each character’s speaking parts. And one voice just didn’t work for me. This was for an older, female character and I felt that the choice in cadence, timber, and nasal effect that was created just didn’t work. It was distracting and took me out of the narrative, but no too badly. Otherwise, I would heartily recommend this title.
The Quiet American is a 1955 novel by Graham Greene, about early US involvement in Indochina, now known as Vietnam. A great story that quite realistically encompasses many of the issues with our involvement in that country a decade after the events in the book take place, when we assume the position that the French had previously held. And I had to turn this off as the voice assumed for the main American character, the eponymous quiet American, rang false to my ears. Narrated by a Brit, the voice was more Texas than the Massachusetts the man is from. It was so bad I cannot recommend this title.
The final title was James Ellroys The Cold Six Thousand. The second book in his Underworld USA trilogy, I picked this one as I had recently read, in real book form, the book that came before this. The predecessor to this book, American Tabloid, is probably Ellroy’s best work, a book that has one of the best endings of any piece of fiction I have read. So, a tough act to follow. And when I had originally read it, I though it failed to live up to its promise. Ellroy has a habit of alteration and loves to play with language, not always successfully. And this has only gotten stronger as his career has gone on. Now, however, while I think that the story is nowhere near as strong as the previous volume, listening to it is probably the best thing. And I say that as those tics work so much better coming out of someone’s mouth and being listened too, as opposed to read. And it makes me want to go back and read his last two books aloud, feel the words roll around in my mouth, make audible the slang he loves, the ethnic speech, foul words, cop talk, jive, staccato beat of people actually talking. This was truly a revelation and shows the full power of an audio book that is meant to be heard and not read.
In the end, for long trips, listening to a book is a pleasant way to pass the time, but the wrong book or a book narrated poorly, is a huge waste of time, and trying to pay attention to a book that you have never read before, a book that is information dense, while trying to pilot a car at 80mph is not a fun thing in my eyes. Or ears.