Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Can't find time to read?

For quite a few years I've been frustrated about not having time in my life to read novels, and in particular to read the 'classics' that I think an educated person ought to be familiar with. In the term 'classics' I'm including the Western canon, world fiction, and great works of literature for children that I missed reading when I was a kid. (One reason for this last group is to know which books I want to read to my own kids.)

When I'm at home, I can never find time to read. I get home from work, then it is dinner, getting the kids a bath, playing with them or reading to them, and by that point I'm ready to go to sleep myself. The days when I could curl up with a book for two to three hours are long gone, and I've missed that experience.

Then this year I started listening to audiobooks regularly, and a whole new field of opportunity has opened.

On my morning run, and then on my commute to and from work, I've been listening to audiobooks. I can often get in about thirty minutes on my run, and thirty minutes each way to work. That is an hour and a half per day.

I've started to think of books in terms of hours rather than pages. A shorter book is 6-7 hours, a long novel like Crime and Punishment runs about 20 hours.

And so since the beginning of February I've managed to listen to:

+ Wuthering Heights
+ Captains Courageous
+ Treasure Island
+ Anne of Green Gables
+ A Tale of Two Cities
+ Crime and Punishment (got 70% of the way through before I gave up)
+ Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are plenty of good sources of audiobooks, of course. If you have a NYC address and a library card, you can download audiobooks from the NYPL for free and keep them for 21 days. Or if you want a wider selection and less hassle there is, where audiobooks cost $10 or less if you sign up with a plan. (Works out to $1 or less per hour of listening.)

The critic Sven Birkerts grumbles about audiobooks in his book The Guterberg Elegies. He writes disapprovingly:

With the audiobook everything - pace, timbre, inflection - is determined for the captive reader. The collaborative component is gone - one simply receives.

Perhaps this is a disadvantage for a professional critic and reader like Birkerts, but for me audiobooks provide a superior artistic experience to reading the book myself. This is particularly the case for fiction based in a time or setting distant from my own, with a lot of accents or difficult to pronounce names.

I feel I understand Wuthering Heights far better after listening to a professional perform the Yorkshire accent of the old servant than I would trying to read it myself. Same applies to the African-American voices in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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