Speaking of progress -- not that we were, but suppose that we had been -- consider the brainchild of Duvall Hecht. He is not the sort of fellow who, when life becomes bleak, toys listlessly with his cereal and pouts. Instead, he founds a business, and before long the interstices of his life and of the lives of his customers are filled with literature.
Hecht is a stockbroker with Bache Halsey Stuart Shields in Los Angeles. But as Californians in their native perversity do, he lives 50 miles away. What does one do while driving 100 miles a day? One chafes. Or one listens to the radio. Many persons would prefer to chafe.
Hecht would prefer to enjoy books. So, like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and others who were impatient with the range of choices life offered, he went to work. Today he and his wife have a sideline business grossing about $1.5 million a year.
It is Books on Tape, "a rental library in sound." No longer is his mind turning to tapioca while he drives. And 30,000 clients are making 100,000 rentals a year from the nearly 600 books available. They are read, beautifully and completely, usually by actors in the Los Angeles area.
Hecht, 53, was a Marine combat pilot in Korea and an Olympic rower (Helsinki, 1952), and now is varsity rowing coach at UCLA. Obviously, he is overflowing with energy. So, I'll bet, is Akio Morita, one of whose recent dissatisfactions produced a device that serves the business brought about by Hecht's dissatisfaction.
Morita, 61, the chairman of Sony, likes music and, a few years ago, decided it would be jolly to walk around enveloped in it. He asked his designers to make that possible. They showed what used to be called Yankee ingenuity. The result was the Walkman, the small stereo tape player with feather-light headphones. Five million have been sold.
The marriage of Morita's and Hecht's ideas is a blessing for those of us who have a voracious appetite for words -- who will read discarded candy wrappers or even Rolling Stone rather than read nothing. Listening to tape during otherwise barren time -- there is a lot of it in life: shaving, vacuuming, riding in taxis, walking dutifully for exercise -- you can consume a novel in four days. The cost is less than $1 an hour.
Of course, listening to Somerset Maugham's description of Charles Strickland's leprosy in "The Moon and Sixpence" can steal the charm from a bowl of Cheerios at 6:30 a.m. Unhappy suburbanites commuting to boring jobs are not advised to listen to George Orwell's "Coming Up for Air." They might do something reckless. And no gentleman should listen to Anais Nin's "Delta of Venus," unless he does not mind walking down the street blushing the color of a beet that is out of breath. But imagine being in a taxi, and instead of hearing the driver's opinion of Paul Volcker, you are hearing Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own."
The pleasure is not just in the particular books. It also is in learning to listen. I now know that I was not very good at something that I wrongly thought was as natural and easy as breathing.
It is well known that reading is something that can be done with widely varying degrees of efficiency. So is listening. Indeed, I'll wager that efficient listeners are even rarer than efficient readers. The best listeners (and worst readers) I know are politicians. They listen to so much testimony and other pleading that they become terrific at assimilating information through their ears. Many of them read only under duress.
Listening to a book -- not just following the plot but following the syntax of 19th-century sentences rich in semicolons and parenthetical clauses--requires a special kind of concentration, and it exercises segments of my brain that have been unexercised since my father read me the exploits of Horatio Hornblower.
Recapturing the pleasures of being read to is possible because two gentlemen on opposite shores of the Pacific were seized by something that often improves the world: dissatisfaction. Fortunately they lived in societies where dissatisfaction can find expression in entrepreneurship.
But enough. I am going for a walk with a new tape, the beginning of Churchill's history of the Second World War. The complete work is contained in 99 cassettes, 90 minutes each. It is going to be a long but stirring walk. I should be at El Alamein by Christmas.