“First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Moby-Dick, Rockwell Kent
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.

Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading. 

Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.

Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.

Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).

Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.

Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.

“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.

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Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?

Matt Kish Illustrates Moby-Dick, One Page at a Time

So, I’m on my fourth trip through Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, courtesy of an excellent unabridged audio version read with aplomb, gusto, humor, and great pathos by the late character-actor William Hootkins. I’ll’ go out on a limb and suggest that Hootkins’s reading is so nuanced and attuned to Ishmael’s voice and Melville’s purpose that it would make a great starting point for anyone (unnecessarily) daunted by Melville’s big book.

I’ve been enjoying the book more than ever this time, in part because, knowing its themes, plot, and tone, I can relax a bit more and enjoy its nuance and humor, its weird little nooks and crannies. I’m also really digging Matt Kish’s mixed-media illustrations for the book. Kish is illustrating each page of his 552 page Signet Classics Edition–the same edition I used for a graduate seminar years ago. Kish’s art is fresh, fun, and invigorating; it’s also quite thoughtful in its interpretation of Melville’s text, and never fussy. You can check out an easy-to-use visual index here, or visit his blog here.

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