Audio, Audio

Books on Tape

It's as if referring to them causes that response and that response alone. "Books on tape? They're good for long drives." People use the word "good," but not as a judgment. It's more of a rationalization than an endorsement. Omit the "good" and the sentence has the same sentiment -- none at all. Everyone suddenly becomes Swiss, taking the most inoffensive stance possible, reluctant to praise or condemn them too much. There's something suspicious about anything which inspires ambivalence.

I'd trap people. I bring up the subject. "Books on tape." They obliviously follow the script. "Good for long drives." Then I break form. "Have you ever even listened to one." Deer react with more cool when the headlights hit. "Well, uh, no... not really" The theory looks so plausible that nobody ever bothers to test it. I need a road trip and some of those tapes. This is science, dammit.

Saturday night wedding. Sunday morning hangover. The phone rings at around 9am. It can't be anyone I know. "Hi, Michael. It's Chris." I am wrong. And my friend is far too excited about news that could easily have waited until the crack of noon. Chris lives in Chicago. It takes awhile, but eventually it hits me that I need only two pieces of information: Are the Cubs in town and can he get off work? In less than an hour, I am on the road, tapes in hand. Sixteen hours and part or all of six different selections later, I am in Chicago.

There are basically two problems with the audio-ized books. First, crap is crap, whether it's written or spoken. And most of the selections available are well below the literary Mendoza line. Example: selection number one for the road -- Memories of Madison County ($17.95, Dove Audio), written and read by Jana St. James.

St. James is fate's accident. Long ago she had a fling with Robert James Waller, the man who wrote The Cash Cow of Madison County. Apparently, the story in Bridges is based roughly on elements of the affair between Waller and St. James. Someone with clout decided this story needed to be put in print and someone with access to recording equipment decided that it needed to be heard. Two bad decisions.

The story? A silly college coed mistakes a fling with a worldly and sensitive new-age-guy graduate student for something epic in scope and tragic in depth. The manner in which St. James blatantly abuses adjectives should be punishable by a fine or a minimum jail sentence: " ...his long, wavy, black hair, brown-black eyes, and olive skin were complemented by a brilliant flash-of-a-smile that fired like signal flare when we first met." She actually says that; and it's not at all atypical of her style. What hath the free market wrought?

Well, I'll tell you, I had also gotten my hands on Jackson Family Values: Memories of Madness, read by Margaret Maldonado Jackson, ($17.95 Dove Audio) -- not just ordinary dirt on America's first family of pop, but inside dirt from a woman once married to Jermaine -- and Madam Foreman: A Rush to Judgment, read by Amanda Cooley, Carrie Bess, Marsha Rubin-Jackson ($17.95, Dove Audio), in which three of O.J. Simpson's jurors paint themselves as victims of sequestration (better that than victims of murder).

It's not all bad. There are less tabloid-based selections, ranging from quality staples of the high-school-reading-list variety to the downright erudite. Along with the above, Dove Audio produces Flaubert, Brontë, etc., as well as titles such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. There is also Knowledge Products, a company based in Nashville that will sell you the dialogues of Plato as read by Chuck Heston (who knew Socrates sounded so much like Moses?). But, again, lovers of all things precocious shouldn't get too excited. Dove's offerings in the "Sidney Sheldon" category alone outnumber those listed in the "Classics" category. No, it's not all bad, just mostly bad.

But selection isn't the big flaw, and the real problem has nothing to do with a path-of-least-resistance objection either -- as if there needs to be something inherently difficult in consuming composed works of words in order for it to be worthwhile. No, the problem with listening to books is a completely visual problem.

It's very similar to what MTV did to rock & roll. Prior to video, listening to music was a personal experience in that when you heard a song, you would also form a unique set of images in your head -- your own personal video if you will. MTV comes along and almost annihilates that kind of experience because it forces one person's, namely the director's, visual interpretation of the song in your head. From then on, hear the song and think of that video, just like everyone else. The experience is totally de-personalized.

Something similar happens when listening to books while road-tripping. The analogy isn't perfect, because with books on tape the problem isn't that a common image is being forced onto every listener, but bizarre ones. Reading a book occupies your eyes. Okay, it sounds like a trivial observation but once that requirement is done away with the whole "reading" experience changes dramatically. When listening to a recorded version of a book your visual field isn't restricted to a page. Now, you are getting a story in your ears and, at least while driving, houses, cities, truck stops, billboards, fields of nothing, and whatever else flying through your sight lines at 75 miles per hour. It's difficult not to associate the two things -- the story and the sights -- no matter how unrelated to each other they seem.

For example, while listening to Wuthering Heights, read by Juliet Mills ($19.95, Dove Audio), instead of Heathcliff and Catherine in 19th-century England, in my head it's the two of them amongst the agricultural machinery outside of Kankakee, Illinois. It becomes even more surreal when factoring in the voice. Juliet Mills does the reading, and her accent made the whole thing excruciatingly British in a way that transcends the setting and social backdrop of the novel.

So, you've got the story with this snooty sounding Queen's English and you're driving through corn fields. The two are forever conjoined in my mind and it's weird and the sensory juxtaposition doesn't necessarily ruin everything. I don't care what I'm looking at when I find out that one of the Simpson jurors, by her own admission, had difficulty mastering the art of cocktail waitressing. And driving on empty roads late at night might intensify a murder mystery to the point of ruin for my seat covers. But a June midday Texarkana sun doesn't really jibe with the imagery and mood of "An Old Man's Winter Night" from The Poetry of Robert Frost, read by Elliott Gould, Jean Smart, Joel Grey, Susan Anspach, Roscoe Lee Brown, Arte Johnson, Melissa Manchester, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Tucker, Alfre Woodward, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. ($12.95, Dove Audio).

If you really want to mix reading and driving, then maybe retooling the book isn't the place to start. Maybe somebody ought to re-engineer the car. Automate it. No hands, no eyes, and nothing to distract your attention from the page.

Cubs win, Cubs win. Chris and I get back to my car and find that I have donated my CD player to an involuntary, inner-city consumer electronics upgrading program. It wasn't an in-dash system and my factory-issue stereo was left undisturbed. As for the tapes, they were in a backpack on my backseat. Gone, too. That's right... someone got away with the Readers Digest humor of Life in These United States, read by Jill Eikenberry, Richard Gilliand, Jean Smart, and Michael Tucker ($12.95 Dove Audio). But I spent the trip home happily playing geographical connect-the-dots with NPR stations, and dodging KGOD radio. n

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