Read to me

Or, Why I’m starting to dig audiobooks

I like seeing books up on my bookshelf, I like owning them, and flipping through them and reminiscing. But when my time for sitting and reading started to wane, just as my need to stimulate my brain’s Fine Arts lobe increased, I’ve at last turned to the cold outsider of the literary family: the audiobook.

It was a practical decision. The el train was too clogged with passengers during my return commute every evening — so crowded I could not sit, which means standing, which means holding on to a pole or a handle (very jerky ride those el trains), which means one-handed reading. This was already self-limiting, as I would have to be sure to select only thin books so my hand wouldn’t collapse from the weight. This solution became further compromised when I found I would have to wait for the train to stop before turning a page, or at least wait for a stretch of track I knew to be reasonably level before letting go of my grip.

So: I joined audible.com and threw some titles on my iPod. At first it felt a bit factorylike. The reader keeps his pace, no matter if my mind starts to drift, or if there’s a bustle with some young ad agency types shuffling on and off at Fullerton or Belmont, throwing us sardines into disarray. If I missed a passage? I wasn’t about to fish out the device and fiddle with rewind buttons in a crowded car. I had to live with that. It bothered me more when I missed an allusion or forgot a character, or wanted to review a bit of information from a earlier chapter — try thumbing through an audiofile, and you’ll hear half-second fragments in nonsensical stream like a cylon hybrid.

Write to the hand.But I’ve come to acknowledge the power of an actor giving lift to words that are otherwise stagnant on the page. If you and this actor don’t get along, it will be a rocky 15-hour relationship. But if the actor is good — and in the case of my copy of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Jonathon Safran Foer) — it can be transcendant. Three voices narrate this book, but the one that I find absolutely riveting is Jeff Woodman as Oskar Schell, a precocious 9-year-old investigating a key left behind by his father (who died on 9/11). Woodman nails the petulant, curious, humorous tone of little Oskar, even the moments that the reader knows are funny but Oskar doesn’t.

Then, to double my pleasure, Oskar encounters a fiesty old man in his apartment building, one who’s over 100 and so hard of hearing he shouts every sentence.

“Well!” he said, so loudly that I wanted to cover my ears. “I’ve had a pretty amazing life! … I was born on January 1, 1900! I lived every day of the twentieth century!”

Here’s where Woodman hits it out of the park. With Foer’s uncanny ear for dialog, and Woodman’s expert reading of both the boy and the shouting eccentric. The exchange is amazing, memorable, unlike anything I can recall. I enjoyed it so much, today I checked a hardback copy out of the library to compare the experience.

As I flip through the pages, it seems I’m missing plenty visual frippery in which Foer tricks out the book. Some chapters are typeset like an e.e. cummings poem, other chapters bear red circles and marks like a proofreader’s pen (without discernible logic). He futzes about with dropped words and half-conversations, and unbroken mega-paragraphs of narrative that go for pages. I can’t say I’m missing it. Not with Woodman breathing such beautiful life into every exchange over on the audio version.

I’m about halfway through. Boy, I hope the old man sticks around. Even if he doesn’t, this one passage is an acting performance worthy of repeated hearings. If you’ve never enjoyed this book this way, please try it.

And if the slightly self-important text stylings get in the way of your enjoyment of the page, please, please, give the audio a spin. Or, if you prefer, give this spot-on parody a try:

"Extremely Long and Incredibly Bad Writer's Block"

"Ext. Long/ Inc. Bad"

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