Living in "double time," I call it. I get twice as much out of my day as I did before I discovered the pleasures of listening to books recorded on tape -- and I feel a lot happier and calmer, too. It is no exaggeration to say that discovering audio books has changed my life.
Before I started listening three years ago, I felt frustrated about how few books I had time to read. I'd fume as I sat stuck in my car during rush hour. I'd rage as I wasted precious moments doing dishes or laundry. As an English teacher with an abiding love for literature, I often felt as I imagine a drug addict does without a "fix." I craved what kept me going but just couldn't get enough. The days were too short and I had too much work to do to find the time to sit down and read a novel "just for fun."
When I did read for relaxation, the piles of newspapers, magazines and journals took precedence over novels, plays or poetry. I felt keenly the truth of Wordsworth's immortal words, "The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
Nostalgic memories of my youth kept popping up, a time when I thought nothing of whiling away a Sunday afternoon deep in Madame Bovary or Middlemarch, when I would stay up late into the night reading the Magic Mountain, when a leisurely bath meant an opportunity to loll in the tub with the Karamazov brothers. For years, though, my Sundays have been devoted to correcting student essays, while the only reading I do late at night is preparation for the next day's classes. And it's pretty hard to read a book during a quick shower.
When a friend suggested that I try renting taped books, I demurred. I like to read books, not hear stories. I don't approve of "painless learning." I like classics, I don't read "trash" and I abhor condensed anything. Nor am I good at taking in information aurally, I protested. I don't think I could pay attention. Besides, it wouldn't be as satisfying as reading, I objected.
But out of desperation, I decided to give it a try. I called Books on Tape, a California outfit with an inventory of more than 2,000 unabridged recorded books, a mixture of classics and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction. I ordered Out of Africa, one of the masterpieces I had always wanted to read but never got around to starting although it has been sitting on my shelf for years. Since this was pre-Meryl Streep/Robert Redford, I hadn't been able to substitute seeing the movie for reading the book.
Springing for first class postage, I received my "book" in two days. A compact box of nine 1 1/2-hour tapes arrived, preaddressed and post paid for the return trip. When I was finished, all I needed to do was seal the box and drop it in the nearest mailbox.
With trepidation and curiosity, I turned on the first tape. "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills," the mellifluous voice of reader Wanda McCaddon began, and my life has not been the same since. Now I'm never without a taped book, and I live what I call the "expanded day" aspect of life.
With my Walkman on my belt and my earphones plugged in, I listen as I race around doing housework -- washing laundry, preparing salads, cleaning up the dinner table, even vacuuming no longer seem onerous chores. Whereas I always used to be in a snit when I performed these necessary but unrewarding jobs -- and pity the person who got in my way while I did them -- now I almost look forward to them as an excuse to continue hearing an especially interesting section of a taped book.
I listen in my car and don't mind the commute to work. I purchased a tiny tabletop speaker to be able to listen to my Walkman without earphones, too. I listen while I ride my exercise cycle and find the tapes actually an incentive to do so. I haven't figured out a way to listen while I use my hair dryer, but I do listen as I apply my makeup and no longer wish it could be tattooed on my face to save time.
Though I would never just sit down to listen to a book, not when I could be reading, listening, it turns out, can be as pleasurable as reading -- different but with its own rewards. As it would be if I were reading a great novel, another world is available to me through a recorded book, with the difference that I do not have to suspend daily tasks to get to it. No matter how fragmented my day, no matter how many conflicts, I know that when I get in my car to drive home, I can turn on the book and there is continuity. Chaotic thoughts give way to calmness, and I'm glad for the escape.
At other times, in contrast, the sound of silence is important, so when I find my mind drifting, I know that I need to pay attention to what's going on in my own head. That's when I turn off the machine and give reign to my own thoughts.
To people who worry about the "dangers" of having a tape going while driving or doing other risky tasks, I reply that it's no different from listening to the news on the radio. I hear the book but I also pay attention to the road, and when something requires my full awareness, I unconsciously tune out the audio. The nice part is the ease with which I can rewind the tape if I've lost the thread, though I find that if it's a good book I've chosen, I'm a better listener than I expected to be.
Thanks to recorded books, I have experienced a new relationship with the human voice, and I love the sound of the different readers' accents and intonations. Mostly the people who read unabridged books are professionals, though not usually famous actors and not the authors themselves. Sometimes I practice imitating their sounds or trying out different ways of emphasizing certain passages, for every reading is an interpretation.
And I feel an unmatched intimacy with a book whose words enter my head through my earphones. After all, language is primarily sound, and when a well-written book is read aloud, each word counts, as it should. If the reader is fine, the language of the work -- poetry or prose -- shines. An example is Dem Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, which I heard a few weeks ago. This harrowing tale of one victim's heroism during the Cultural Revolution in China, a best-seller, is beautifully described by the author's tough but lyrical prose. The reading by Penelope Dellaporta perfectly corresponds to my imagined idea of the way Cheng, now a Washington resident, must sound in Chinese.
Since 1985 I have heard more than 70 books on tape. Some are old friends I'd never gotten around to rereading -- all of Jane Austen's novels, for example, also Jane Eyre, Hard Times, Jude the Obscure and Cry, the Beloved Country. Others are new works that had passed me by when they first came out. That's how I discovered the genius of John Gardner -- and went through October Light, The Sunlight Dialogues, Grendel and others -- and Larry McMurtry, especially Lonesome Dove. Because I sometimes exchange tapes with friends to keep the cost down (rented tapes average around $15, about the price of a new hardcover novel), I've enjoyed books I never would have ordered on my own: The Manticore, The Left Hand of Darkness. Biographies such as Nabokov's Speak Memory and history books have taken on new interest to me, as have travel accounts such as From Heaven Lake.
Now I am a books on tape evangelist. I go around preaching the importance of making the most of our time on earth. I search out my subjects with keen insight because the type of person who likes to listen to audio books is hard to define. According to the president of the Maryland-based Recorded Books company, Henry Trentman, "the common denominator is an active mind -- manic people who like to keep their minds occupied." So if you see me waxing eloquent at a party, it's a safe bet that I'm extolling the virtues of audio books. And I modestly admit that I've made my share of converts.
Last year when I visited my sister in Chicago, I told her about my passion and tried to persuade her to try it, but she put up all the same arguments against it that I had mustered before I converted. I could see by the expression on her face that she thought I had fallen over the edge, and I could also see that she had no intention of taking my good advice despite my repeated efforts to bring her into the fold.
A month later my sister called to say she had just finished her first taped book. "You have given me the best gift I have ever received," she said. "You've shown me how to make my day seem longer, how to enjoy the literature I love but haven't had time for and, most of all, how to calm myself when I am angry. Now I don't yell at my family when I'm doing mindless tasks, and I hardly mind doing the dishes. My rage level is much lower. Thank you."
Washingtonian Flo Gibson, reader extraordinaire who started her own company (Audio Book Contractors) a few years ago -- after many years as a reader for other commercial companies and for the Library of Congress "Talking Books" program -- considers audio books perfect for times "when hands and eyes are occupied but the mind isn't." They give book lovers a marvelous opportunity to reread classics, catch up on more recent titles and discover new authors.
Gail Forman is a professor of English at Montgomery College in Rockville.