The first time I listened to a book was after a cocktail party. For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t get out of the party. The trouble was, I also had to be in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a noon meeting the next day. So, while it was not a great idea, I started the 600-mile drive at 10 p.m.
The book was “A Tale of Two Cities,” and I was one of the few who had never read it. This BBC production was so outstanding that Madame Defarge and company took me all through the night without a bout of drowsiness.
Since that time, 10 or so years ago, I’ve maybe really read 30 books, which is pitiful, of course, given the number of great books and the relative shortness of life. The trouble is, there’s never time to read during the day. And if I lie down with a book at night, within minutes, I’m asleep, after trying to make it through the same sentence four times.
Now I confess that, in the last 18 months, I have become an audio books addict. The last year and a half, I’ve probably listened to double the number of books I’ve read in the past decade.
The addiction crept up on me. Early on, I used audio books only for the long drives. My last stop before hitting the road was the library, to see what they had. Soon, however, it grew to include the treadmill, where a crackling and violent Robert Ludlum spy novel is perfect. Is the writing great? No. But the books keep you focused on them and not on the pain of exercise. And as someone who aspires to be a “real writer” when he grows up, I find it fascinating to consider the components of what makes a hugely popular and commercially successful yarn.
By now, I’ve exhausted Ludlum and run through several John Grishams; I no longer use books on CD to blunt tedium. I’ve graduated to the classics: “Light in August,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Illiad,” Dante’s “Inferno,” Asimov’s “Foundation” and “Robot” trilogies, “Fahrenheit 451,” “Tender is the Night,” “Crime and Punishment”—not to mention great nonfiction on the Whiskey Rebellion, Alexander Hamilton, Krakatoa, the founding fathers and the life of Sir Isaac Newton—all in the last year.
Purists may scoff, but I now “read” every time I’m in the car, except, of course, if my wife’s with me. (Our children enjoy the stories, even in snippets, and my dog has never complained.) With my wife, however, we learned our lesson last summer driving back from New England. We all wanted to listen to Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” but my wife couldn’t handle the post-apocalyptic drear. We gave her an iPod and turned it up, but she claimed to still hear the boy saying, “Papa, are they going to eat us?” Ultimately, her solution was to take a sleeping pill.
I dislike using my cell phone in the car, so my “reading” is something of a public service. What guilt I’ve felt for decades about my lack of reading has dissolved—so I must be healthier too. And I’m no longer constantly reminded of the regular magnification increases I need in my reading glasses—so the spectre of mortality has dimmed as well.
Finally, I’m pleased to announce that in the recent Press Club of Western Pennsylvania Golden Quill Awards our contributors won six Quills. It’s the fourth year in a row that we’ve been at the top of the magazine category for excellence in journalism. So now, of course, I’m setting to work creating a “Best of Pittsburgh Quarterly” audio CD….
Happy reading, in whatever form it takes.