Monday, September 17, 2007

To Read or to LIsten.....That is The Question.

I can’t seem to get immersed in any one book lately. Too restless --- mind drifting hither and yon, searching, for what? Purpose? The meaning of life? New and exotic spiders? Chocolate?? Rather than really reading one book, I’ve been dipping and browsing.

One I’ve been carting around is “Under My Skin,” Volume One of Doris Lessing’s autobiography. Why Doris Lessing? I am not a fan, or even an un-fan, of her books. I haven’t read any of them, even though I have seen her referred to as “one of the great writers of the twentieth century.” Reviews of her latest book, “The Cleft” leave me uninterested.

But she has an arresting face. A face with character. The face of a person who didn’t back down from life’s challenges.

That face captivated me, and so I carried her home in my book bag. I haven’t been sorry. “One reason for writing this autobiography” she says, “is that more and more I realize I was part of an extraordinary time, the end of the British Empire in Africa……………..People no longer know what that time was like, even those who live in Southern Africa.” She has had a fascinating life and tells the story well.

I think I like autobiographies better than those written about someone by someone else. Because your life, and the paths you take, or don’t, and the decisions you make, or won’t, are all determined by how you think. And who, but you, can really understand that?

All of which makes my mind wander, in it’s aimless fashion, to a newspaper article I read recently, wherein “Book club purists look down on their brethren who---gasp---get the audio version.” [“Listen, you cheater” by Andrew Adam Newman of the NY Times]

For me the choice is easy. I prefer books. I like the weight of them, the feel of them, sometimes even the smell of them. I love the promise of another world waiting for me between the covers. Some of my favourite places are bookstores, especially musty -smelling second hand ones where each book’s physical history is shrouded in mystery. I like the situations of reading too, whether curled up inside, listening to the rain, or tucked into a corner of the porch, or hidden in the leafy middle of the tree at the bottom of our garden when I was growing up, or fitting in just a few pages more before my head flops onto my chest at night.

Sometimes I do check out audio versions, especially for trips in the car. But when I do, I often find the reader’s voice or interpretation annoying, as I did when I listened to “Rise and Shine.” I’m a big fan of Anna Quindlen’s, but she was not the reader, and the reader didn’t read it as I would have expected the author would have wanted it read. Call me persnickety.

This doesn’t happen when the author is the reader.
Two outstanding examples come to mind. Sometime after reading, and loving, Frank McCourt’s book “Angela’s Ashes,” I found the audio version, read by McCourt himself. And loved it, all over again. It was like sitting by the fire, listening to him tell his story. He got the accent just right. Imagine that! Much better than some poor amadawn of an American trying to fake it with a stage-Irish brogue! Each inflection was perfect, and his pronunciation of the frequent Irish words flawless. As Homer would say---“Doh!” He wrote the bloody thing. It came from inside his head and his memory and out through his vocal chords. Of course no one else could have done it justice.

Likewise with lives. Only the person who has lived a life can write about it convincingly. At least about the parts that most interest me---what they were thinking and feeling.

Then recently I happened upon an audio version of “The Not So Big Life” by Sarah Susanka. She is an architect whose book “The Not So Big House” I had really enjoyed. When we lived in Minnesota, we went on a tour of an award-winning house designed by her. Her ideas about our living spaces make so much sense to me. And here she was, unexpectedly applying her architectural principles to the way people conduct their lives. I was intrigued. I listened to the entire thing and became as much a fan of her ideas about our lives as I already was of her ideas about the houses we live them in. She herself was the reader. Only she could have read it with such passion and conviction. I will probably check out the book version soon, which will have the advantage of letting me reread parts I find particularly interesting, and gaze off into space while contemplating others. Yes, I know. I could rewind the tape or CD, but I’d rather reread, given the choice, than mess with buttons and risk blowing something up. Which has been known to happen.

But, back to Doris. She says “….scientists…….say something like, `If the story of the earth is twenty four hours long, then humanity’s part in it occupies the last minute of that day.` Similarly, in the story of a life, if it is being told true to time as actually experienced, then I’d say seventy percent of the book would take you to age ten. At eighty percent you would have reached fifteen. At ninety-five percent, you get to about thirty. The rest is a rush - towards eternity.”

Will you excuse me now? I have to go immerse myself in my book, which has finally got me hooked.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

I also love books and do not listen to "books on tape." I have long outgrown being read a bedtime story, and I love to read. I love everything about it, including the smell of the pages. (When I purchase second-hand books from the library store, I always sniff them to make sure they were not smoked into. That's a deal breaker.)

I agree totally that only the writer knows what was in his mind, ever. I have become enamored of memoirs in the last few years, and they have taken over several shelves in my bookcases.

But I've kept you long enough. Now, go forth and read.

Eastcoastdweller said...

I love those rare old bookstores,too. A vanishing treasure, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

I find that I don't read so much any more. I think it is because I hate a book to last a long time. I want to start it and finish it within the space of a day - maybe two. I just don't seem to have the luxury of taking a whole day out from my daily life to read.
I've never really considered audio books because I know that my mind drifts when passive listening.
The architecture book sounds very interesting.

Birdydownunder said...

Just in time....I have a trip to the library tomorrow. Would you believe that the last time I went armed with a list of books you had read or were reading, they were all on loan. Ah well tomorrow.

thailandchani said...

I also love books, of course. Old books, the feel of a book in my hands, the feel of the pages...

And the story! Oh, yes!

Last time I read a book that just grabbed me and wouldn't let me go was "Four Reigns" by Kukrit Pramoj.

I'm hungry for a book like that again. :)



Molly said...

I am sorry to say this to an Irish lass, but I did not like Angela's Ashes. Two books that I did enjoy this summer The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Happy Reading, Molly.

meggie said...

I loved Angela's Ashes. Cant say the same for his brother's pompous book.
I love to get a book that I dont want to end. I keep checking, & sometimes will stop reading just to prolong the deliciousness of it.

riseoutofme said...

I live in the town of Angelas Ashes and actually know some people who would've grown up with Mc Court .... sentimental, inaccurate, money-making claptrap ...I won't even start on his brother!

Sorry Molly ... you already knew this ..

Enjoy the readfest ... oh to have the time ....

Princess Banter said...

OMG -- me too!!! I tried doing the whole audio book before to see what the hype is about and I discovered that I couldn't focus. I would constantly be looking elsewhere or fiddle with something. I don't like it at all. Like you, I much prefer books! I dread the day when e-books come to be to "save paper." Nothing will ever replace my darling paperbacks :)

molly said...

Heart---Maybe people read memoirs for reassurance that there is some purpose to it all?

ECD---Poking around in one, or even in a B&N,---a blissful way to spend a few hours...

Tracey P [TP is something I put on my shopping list, so won't call you that!] When I get hooked by a really good book, I never want it to end...Hope you find SS's book. You and YP would enjoy it.

Good luck in your search, Birdy. And while you're out, here's another little-touted gem of a movie for you---"Keeping Mum,"starring--who else?--Maggie Smith....

Chani---I've added it to The List!

MJD---If we all liked the same things life would be pretty dull! Even though it won a Pulitzer prize and I did like parts of it, I never finished Gilead....

Meggie---Growing up in Ireland we could all say the Hail Mary in our sleep. "Blessed art thou amongst women" gave Malachy McC the title for his book, A Monk Swimming. No need to even open it. The title was the only part worth reading....

Rise,darlin'!You are too harsh! And I don't already "know this".To me it rang true [I grew up there too, a little earlier than you] and not so sentimental. And it came from inside HIS head....But, it is normal for Irish writers to be scorned at home. Maybe the depth of the scorn is a measure of how good they are??
I believe McC when he says AA was something he HAD to write, and that he was as surprised as anyone when it became such a hit....but I still love ya!

Princess---I have to admit to being a snob! Given a choice between a paperback and a hardcover book, I'll choose the hardback every time!

I think I was hoping that someone out there would have read Doris Lessing and would have something to say about her writing. The silence is deafening.......Anyone?

barlynne said...

Molly, thank you for your kind words about The Not So Big Life by Sarah Susanka. In reading your blog, Sarah thought you might enjoy meeting kindred spirits on our website, and in particular, her blog entitled "Ponder Well". You can find us at

Sarah also noticed your reference to Gift From The Sea. In May of this year, Sarah was honored to receive the 2007 Anne Morrow Lindbergh Award for individual achievement.

As Sarah says, synchronicity is alive and well in the life of Sarah Susanka, and Molly Bawn.

----from another Irish lass, Barbara, of Susanka Studios.

Tanya Brown said...


Thank you for the vicarious reading treat. I can't imagine a life without books and I don't care to try.

Stomper Girl said...

I'm an Angela's Ashes fan, the story had me gripped from start to finish. I have seen a program with Frank McCourt and enjoyed that too. So I wouldn't mind hearing the audio version. Agree with Meggie about Malachi's book though. Can you Irish women tell me how you pronounce that name? Is it Mal-ar-chi or Ma-lark-ie or what?