My Year in Book Listening: 2014

In the summer of 2013, I accepted a new job with a 60-mile each-way commute, qualifying me as a mega-commuter from the perspective of distance if not in duration (as I can often make the trip in less than 90 minutes, weather and traffic permitting). While less than ideal and much longer than the 25.5 minute average American drive, there are a number of reasons this was something I ultimately decided to do, and the opportunity to spend solitary time with audiobooks was high on that list. As an English major who long ago left his wordy career behind for the more lucrative, stressful, intense, all-encompassing world of technology, finding crevices of life in which to stuff books and magazines is an ongoing obsession. With a gift subscription to Audible.com, a Bluetooth-to-radio adapter for my 2006 ride (the Motorola T505—highly recommended), and Waze guiding my route, my mornings and afternoons are my listening time.

I started my new job in July and warmed up with two free audio books: The fantastic, dramatized version of “Ulysses” and a more straightforward “The Metamorphosis” (kudos to the folks over at Librivox and all their volunteers). In August, I received the Audible subscription I mentioned (thanks, Dad), and decided to tackle a huge bucket list item: Proust. I had read “Swann’s Way” twice over the years as a warm up into the entire “Remembrance of Things Past,” but had never gotten any further. Seven volumes. So, so many pages. Such long, beautiful, entrancing sentences, begging to be read and reread and underlined and glossed and shared in their un-Twitter-friendly completeness. I loved it in concept—I love things that are complex and ultimately unknowable: wine, philosophy, religion, music—but it was a big time commitment. Now, I had time to fill—and the brilliant folks over at Naxos had gotten Neville James to read the entire thing, unabridged. It was a small fortune to purchase on CD but Audible opened the door to relative affordability with each volume being one monthly credit (and generally one month’s listening). In September, I began, and moved through it one volume per month: “Within a Budding Grove” (October), “The Guermantes Way” (November), and “Sodom and Gomorrah” (December) finished off 2013.

Lost time.

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Once you have a little Proustian momentum, it really isn’t possible to stop, and the first three months of 2014 speedily consumed the last three volumes, “The Captive,” “The Fugitive,” and “Time Regained,” and this important bucket-list objective was finally checked off with a mental flourish. As one of the most important works of literature ever written, there isn’t much point in summarizing “Things Past” or waxing poetically about the singular creation that it is (though of course the Monty Python Summarize Proust Competition is always worth five minutes). Things that stand out to me are the narrator’s love for his mother (his anguish in waiting for her kiss every night, and his scheme for prying her from dinner guests to have her deliver him one, has etched itself in my mind and had a great effect on me); his love for his grandmother, which receives similar treatment, and her passing is as heartbreaking as it should be; the love story of Swann and Odette, if that is what we should call Swann’s romantic obsession; the parallel love stories of the narrator and Gilbert and Albertine; the heroic Robert de Saint-Loup providing support throughout; the paintings of Elstir and Vinteuil’s evasive sonata—so many things about it are memorable that it becomes a part of your life and decorates your world with its own phrases and concepts. Proust’s own life and his writing of these volumes have become a mythology in and of themselves, and, while I am happy he gave us these words and images, I think we should be thankful that we are able to read them rather than having to have had the life that realized them. This genius’s life seems a better thing to experience from outside the cork-lined room.

In April, I decided to move on to something more contemporary, and as every magazine, newspaper, and Facebook post was promoting “The Goldfinch,” I decided to dive into it. It was as good as advertised and completely addictive. You will race through it. While you could argue that the last pages are a little longer and more expositional than you would have liked, I think it holds together very beautifully, and the narration by David Pittu was remarkable; I loved his version of Boris, and Xandra is a hoot, and I miss Hobie often. The fictional echoes of previous historical events is nicely managed as well.

May I gave to “Speak, Memory,” which I have read before but thought worth reliving. It is a beautiful book with, not surprisingly, some great moments and beautiful images (Nabokov on the hunt for the butterfly among them), but I still think it is better to read Nabokov writing about fictional others than about his historical self, and the narration was a little robotic and therefore distracting. I would recommend reading it in written form and listening to this recent podcast of “Pnin” instead.

The rest of May, June, and most of July I gave to “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” which I loved and highly recommend. Though written around 1570 to 1592, the essays (or “attempts,” a form that Montaigne is argued to have invented, or at the least established the early model for) cover topics with an often very modern perspective, and his voice is so enjoyable that he will quickly pop up to the top of your list the next time someone (perhaps irritatingly) asks you, “If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?” The audio book stretches almost 50 hours, but each of the generally short essays stands very independently and can be dipped into as you like. His send-up of doctors is worth your time if you’ve ever doubted your medical care (fairly or not). And, if you’ve ever felt certain about something, allowing his “What do I know?” to ring in your ears and encircle your thought process is certainly advisable.

Having been a long-time admirer of the wisdom that comes out of Neil Gaiman in social media but having never actually read of one of his works, I decided July was the month to remedy that omission. After a little Facebook voting and Goodreads review reading, I selected “American Gods” to populate my July. I was a big Stephen King fan as a young person and felt transported back into that sort of fantastical mystical world. I admire Gaiman’s creatively and narrative skills—you have to keep reading to see how this is all going to work out—but admit that this feels like a genre towards which I’m no longer all that partial. Maybe it was the Montaigne.

Back to nonfiction for August, with Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” another book that had long been on my to-read list. What a fantastic survey. Learning the background of musical history through different composers, their interactions with their cultural context and peers, and Mr. Ross’s amazing ability to describe musical pieces were all highlights, and my Spotify playlists grew as each chapter clicked by. One of the moments that stands out to me is the description of Sibelius and the inspiring swans he saw fly overhead, as similarly recounted in this article:

The second movement of the Fifth provides a spell of calm, although beneath the surface a significant new idea is coming to life—a swaying motif of rising-and-falling intervals, which the horns pick up in the finale and transform into the grandest of all Sibelian themes. The composer called it his “swan hymn”; he recorded it in his diary next to a description of sixteen swans flying in formation over Ainola. “One of my greatest experiences!” he wrote. “Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon…. That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider.” The swans reappeared three days later: “The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to [my] life. [It’s] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me—nothing in art, literature, or music—in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being.”

“That this should happen to me, who have so long been the outsider.” Haunting.

After seeing the first two Hobbit movies and getting prepared for the finale (which we just saw this week; its a little long but still enjoyable), I dedicated the rest of August to the original “The Hobbit” since I hadn’t read it in a long time and wanted to clear my mind of the film adaptations in order to better understand (or, naturally, critique) them. I first read Tolkien as an early teen and though I can’t lay claim to the fandom that enables some to recant complete dwarven ancestral lines from memory or draw the maps of Middle Earth that line the books’ end pages with pixel-level fidelity, I was certainly a follower and listening to it again in Rob Inglis’s completely appropriate voice drew me back into my childhood days with Bilbo. As Proust said, “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.”

In September, Audible had a sale and I picked up “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which I have read before but thought it was a nice way to look back behind the movie and into Mr. Capote, whose brilliant “In Cold Blood” I’m not sure I want to read again but whose “A Christmas Memory” I need to revisit. It is hard not to love the enigmatic Holly Golightly, even without Audrey Hepburn in your mind. As to the question of whether Holly was a woman of the night, the author sort of clarified that in 1968 (just so you know).

The rest of the month I gave to “Middlemarch,” which I had only ready snippets of before, perhaps in college. I kept seeing it pop up very highly in “best book ever” lists and thought it was time to dive in and through it. Juliet Stevenson provides an absolutely fantastic reading in the Naxos version, and I loved following the travails of Dorothea, Casaubon, and Will Ladislaw. Though a little soap-operatic in plot—will Dorothea really marry the too-old Causabon for his intellect, and help him write “The Key to All Mythologies,” and will she then marry Will, her true love, despite Casaubon’s will forbidding it?—it is an absolutely engaging read and the last sentence still rings in my memory: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes.

In October, I was able to push through three books, the first one two times:  “The Stranger” (twice because it is short, and compelling, and mysterious, and I wanted to make sure I got everything right—did the narrator really not cry when his Maman died? How did things go at the beach again, exactly?), “Crime and Punishment” (it was on sale and I had read it too long ago to remember much more than the main events), and “The Sound and the Fury,” which was another reread but, hey, it’s Faulkner, and honestly I think listening to it might actually make more sense than reading it, through you are not given the clues of line breaks and italics that the written version provides. “The Stranger” and “Crime and Punishment” were accidentally sequenced but, given some of the shared themes, ended up being good comrades in a way that I might have easily considered writing a paper about back in the days when I wrote papers about things like that. “The Sound and the Fury” was by far the most emotional read of three, with poor Benjy suffering through his miserable life with his miserable family until Dilsey saves the day by taking us all to church, literally.

With two more months left in the year and the potential of a polar vortex reprise extending my daily drive as autumn deepened, I knew I had time for one more big book, and I pulled Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” to the top of the list. During my first year at university, I dual-majored in physics and literature, and, at one point, probably amid the obligatory Philosophy 101 class, in which I devoured impenetrable but somehow profound linguistic puzzles, I thought philosophy would be an interesting minor. (None of that really worked out.) “A History” is just like taking, well, a history of philosophy course, starting with the ancient, pre-Socratic days and bringing us right up to the more-or-less present day (it was published in 1945). Not just a review of philosophy or philosophers, Russell gives us historical context for the lives of the philosophers so we can better understand how their world informed their works—and how they then shaped the world around them in the instances in which they did. Its structure reminds me of “The Rest is Noise” enough that I have to wonder if Ross was inspired by Russell, or if it just an obvious enough way to architect a book that covers a specific subject area over a wide time period and a broad cast of characters. It is a witty, accessible, and wonderful book (I found myself laughing to myself, potentially to the irritation of my co-commuters, more often than I would have expected), and it is no surprise it was cited when Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. Here’s the last paragraph:

In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as it possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member. The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life.

Increasing the capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding, indeed.

So ends my year of listening. Having grown up with books in all their papery, nerdy, librarian-shushed austerity, I recall a time when audiobooks (I think they were mostly Books on Tape, on cassette, then) were considered a more commercial, accessible, “easier” approach to reading, and somehow the less for it, like watching the movie or reading the Cliff’s Notes. I’ll admit there are times when this sensibility has merit for me, too, and I bought a complete set of Proust (thanks, Literati) and Montaigne in paper so I could follow along and retrace my steps in the original format as I listened. I also checked out nearly all the other books I heard from the library (or Feedbooks or Gutenberg) as well for the same reason. But listening is a great way to consume these works; it returns us to the oral traditions and forms of the original stories, and I often find that my ability to recall the specifics of plot, or to hear, literally, a thematic reference, is greater with audio adaptations when compared to reading along by myself in silence. I guess it is a moot point until Google delivers the self-driving car for which I pine and, with Cosmo-Kramer-intensity, yearn. Until then, I will be listening as I cover the blue Michigan highways, as the sun comes up and slips down again in my rear-view mirror, blissfully unaware of the congestion ahead until Waze interrupts the narration with a traffic alert and pulls me back to life, back to reality—if only for a moment.