Listening for Lent

In the old days, say, six years ago, reading for me was, simply, reading. Holding a book in my hands, read through the printed words, turned the pages manually, feeling the paper at my fingertips. But today, I have several ways to ‘experience’ a book. I can still read in the old traditional way, or download the eBook to my iPad using the app ‘OverDrive’, or, listen to an audiobook, on CD’s or MP3.

As a slow reader, I find listening to audiobooks a time-saving way, albeit I still prefer to hold a book in my hands and see prints on paper. But in this day of multi-tasking, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while driving as I can fit in my reading time. I confess, I could be distracted by the story, or the traffic. But overall, listening to audiobooks while driving is a perfect alternative for me, in lieu of time and space for ‘actual’ reading.

Recently I read an article by T. M. Luhrmann in the New York Times entitled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling. This insightful piece introduced me to a different reason for listening to audiobooks.

First off, Luhrmann takes down the generally accepted view that reading with our eyes as ‘more serious, more highbrow’ than listening to a story being told orally. She points to the early childhood experience when way before we could read, we were introduced to stories through listening to them. So maybe such a notion extends to our adult life making us feel that listening to stories is a childlike activity than reading the text on our own.

Many great books were actually oral legends, Luhrmann points out, “… for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung.” Noted. Can’t say listening to audiobooks is child’s play.

Luhrmann then comes to the crux of her idea. While we listen to an audiobook, we can do something else with our eyes and hands. That’s just obvious, isn’t it? Exactly what I said at the beginning of this post, the benefit of multitasking. But I was too rash to have thought I knew it so. What I read after this was nothing short of an epiphany for me.

No, not while driving, but when Luhrmann is gardening, she listens. Often, she would listen to the Bible. I love what she has to say next (emphasis mine):

Listening to a book is a different sensory experience than reading it. The inner imagining of the story becomes commingled with the outer senses — my hands on the trowel, the scent of tansy in the breeze. The creation of this sensory richness was in fact an explicit goal of the oral reading of the Bible in the medieval European cloister, so that daily tasks would be infused with Scripture, and Scripture would be remembered through ordinary tasks.

Whenever she looks at the “50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis in the dappled light beneath [her] oaks” she would think of “Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope.” Why, Luhrmann was listening to Fitzgerald’s novel while planting those the year before. Now looking at the plants would flash upon that inward eye what she had heard.

Of course, that sounds so simple and natural, a kind of classical conditioning, if you will. We fuse our senses and experience. All the more that we should listen to good books or we’ll have bad memories looking at the tasks we’d performed.

And what a wonderful idea Luhrmann had left me with: Scripture-infused daily tasks. That can’t be more apt for Lent.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann teaches Anthropology at Stanford.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude

The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?

Dances With Words

What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?


What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?

That’s the question for discussion today on Audiobook Week 2012 hosted by Devourer of Books.

I’ve just started listening to audiobooks regularly this year and already found a few excellent narrators:

Jeremy Irons reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — I’ve already mentioned how captivating his voice is on my review. Basically, it’s the aptness of the tone in fitting the mood and atmosphere of the book. Clarity is crucial as well. Often when just listening, I would easily get confused as to who’s talking. But Irons is most efficient in keeping his characters distinct. Finally, the dramatization of them is spot on. I can see them in my mind’s eyes. They are convincingly interpreted and portrayed, consistent with the characterization of the book.

Peter Francis James reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith — This is a challenging book to narrate because of its myriad of accents and racial mix. James has done an amazing job in voicing the characters in their cultural, gender, and age-related quirks and expressions. Here we have a fusion of British, British/American, African American, rapper American, and British/Trinidadian. All these just to depict two mixed-race families. Here, the criterion for excellent narration is efficiently met: Amidst the cacophony of voices, James has distinguished the characters with apt individualism, helping me to appreciate each character on its own.

Tim Jerome reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson — This 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel has only one character speaking throughout and that’s the ageing Reverend in Gilead, Iowa, John Ames. Suffering from illness but still lucid and wise, he leaves his memories to his very young son as a family legacy while he still has time. Tim Jerome’s voice exudes gentleness, compassion, forgiveness and wisdom, just like the character John Ames. Listening to the audio makes me feel like he’s casually and warmly chatting with me over coffee after a good meal. I don’t think I’ve heard another more gentle and loving voice, which is so appropriate with the characterization.


You can see I’ve mentioned the audiobook that I listened to with these narrators, as I haven’t heard their other works. So this leaves another question: Are they just as excellent in those other readings? That I’ll gladly explore.


Audiobook Review: Brideshead Revisited Read by Jeremy Irons

Don’t be misled by the cover design. This audiobook is not related to the 2008 movie adaptation. Rather, it’s an unabridged recording of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, engagingly read by Jeremy Irons, who plays the narrator Charles Ryder in the 1981 award-winning British TV series.

Jeremy Irons exemplifies what an ideal audio performance should be like. We look for the visuals in a movie; we are drawn to the voice in an audiobook.

For one who has had his share of youthful desires, tasted love and loss, and known the ambivalent effect family and religion can bring, now twenty years after, Charles Ryder is resigned to a numb and dreamless existence. Irons delivers such a tone perfectly… his deep, quiet and sombre voice an apt reflection of Ryder’s sentiments.

His voice dramatizes the various characters with clarity. As a listener, I can easily tell who’s talking, as simple as that. From the senior Lord Marchmain to 12 year-old Cordelia, from the stuttering Anthony Blanche to the constantly drunk Sebastian Flyte, Irons’ portrayal is natural and apt. Characterization is consistent in their manner of speech, quirks and eccentricities. Further, he has also effectively conveyed the subtext, the undercurrents in the dialogues, for example, the sardonic remarks Edward Ryder often hurls at his son.

On top of all these, Irons has presented Waugh’s beautiful language and descriptions with poetic eloquence. His articulation stops me time and again to rewind so I can listen and savor the language once more.

Here is the excerpt that seized me from the start and sent me to find the passage in the book to recap every word. This is in the Prologue when Charles unknowingly arrives Brideshead in his army duty twenty years later and asks his subordinate where they are. This is the moment when he is told the name of the place:

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.

I know it’s a bit long, but I must include it here, for this is the passage that has drawn me to the written word, all because of the voice reading it. Can this be the measure of a good audiobook?


Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh read by Jeremy Irons, BBC Audiobooks America, 10 CD’s, 11 hrs 21 min, Unabridged. July 22, 2008.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


Thanks to Devourer of Books for hosting Audioweek 2012.

Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

The Downton Ripples

Dances With Words


Listen Up: Audiobook Week 2012

June is Audiobook month, and today begins Audiobook Week 2012 (June 25-29), thanks to Devourer of Books for hosting. This is my first time participating.

Audiobooks are not new to me, albeit I’ve not been a regular listener. But 2012 is the year I rediscover the pleasure and benefits of them, and become a ‘chain user’. Mainly, it’s a time-saver for me. I listen to CD recordings of books while driving. That’s a great way to finish a book. Yes, after much pondering, I say ‘finish’ instead of ‘read’. The difference I’ve written in a previous post Dances With Words.

Yes, books on CD’s still, because there’s a large collection at our local public library., well, here’s a little story.

Have you ever been given a gift and then see it taken away as you open it? This is exactly my experience on this year’s Mother’s Day. My son gave me Colin Firth’s reading of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair through Sweet… both the giver and the gift. We unwrapped the gift together, trying to download the recording, but was told its copyrights did not apply to Canada. So, we can’t listen to it above the 49th parallel. So much for free trade and open borders.

Anyway, I’m resigned to continue listening the old fashioned way… CD’s, while patiently waiting for Colin Firth’s reading to be transferred onto them.

The following are the audiobooks I’ve finished so far this year:

Reviews coming up. Happy listening everyone!


Dances with Words

After listening to an audiobook, do you consider having read the book?

Why or why not?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. I love reading, but I’m a slow reader. It’s always faster to listen to a book read to me than reading it myself. So you see the appeal there. And I can make good use of my time while driving.

But I always feel there’s a difference between listening and reading. All along, I don’t equate having listened to an audiobook with having read the printed pages. I’m beginning to find the word ‘finish’ most apt, since it can apply to both. Saying ‘I have finished a book’ can mean either.

Oral tradition of storytelling has long been around in human history, a way to preserve tales and legends that had not found a written form. But for those that do have a life in words, or, ‘texts’ in our eAge, why do I still hesitate to consider listening to them the same as reading the print version?

At long last, I think I’m beginning to get a hold of what could be the difference… and this may sound so common sense to you. But, it’s an Eureka moment for me.

Here it is: Reading a book is a first-hand encounter. I’m the sole interpreter of the text. Like partners in a dance, as a reader I respond and move with every single word in my own way.

The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch (1900)

With audiobooks, I’m listening to a voice that has already interpreted the written codes. Every audio recording is a performance. And I mean it in a good sense. The reading I’m listening to has passed through an interpretive filter. That voice must have first read the words, internalized, and then delivered them with what the voice thought was the appropriate diction, pitch, accent, tempo, emotion…

When I’m reading a book, I’m dancing with the words as partners. When I’m listening to an audiobook, I’m watching a dance performance. I enjoy both. But the experiences are different… and there’s only one first-hand encounter that’s unique to me: my own.  But sometimes, I need to see how others dance too in order to appreciate the story or the characters more. We just may need dancing lessons every now and then.

I must give kudos to two audiobooks I finished recently. In both of them, the voice reading the text confirms how fascinating dances with words can be.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith, read by Peter Francis James:

I’m amazed how one reader can give life to characters of various cultural background in such a vivid manner. On Beauty explores in a nuanced and comical way, relationships and conflicts within a family, as well as between races, generations, and genders. It was shortlisted for a Booker (2005) and was the Orange Prize winner in 2006. Now imagine the myriad of characters.

The book describes two families intertwined in a cacophony of cultural dissonance, the fathers being academic rivals. In the Belsey family we have father Howard who is a white Englishman, his African American wife Kiki, their three youthful offspring who have grown up in America influenced by different subcultural vernaculars. Melting pot is a wrong term to describe them. It’s more like you’ve thrown classical, jazz, hip-hop, rap, all into the wok and stir fry.

Howard’s academic rival is Monty Kipps, who has brought his family from England to stay in America shortly as a visiting scholar teaching at the same college as Howard. The Kipps family members are all British citizens with Trinidadian heritage. Their two college age children have grown up in England.

The talented actor Peter Francis James has given a worthy portrayal of such a cultural mix of characters without turning them into caricatures, but has rendered them convincing and real. Zadie Smith’s nuanced dialogues and humor are well executed. It is a close encounter of dissonance in language, accents, values, and racial influences. What a dance performance this is. I have not read the book, but when I do read it, I’m sure I will not appreciate it as much if I haven’t heard the voices jumping up and down in my mind.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, read by Tim Jerome

Gilead was the 2005 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner. I read the book a few years back. Listening to the audio CD’s recently has not only brought back memory of my previous enjoyment, but insights that I’d missed my first time reading the book. All thanks to the calm, soothing, and gentle voice of Tim Jerome, portraying spot-on the ageing John Ames, Congregationalist minister of Gilead, Iowa.

Throughout the book, there’s only one character speaking, that of John Ames leaving a legacy to his very young son, telling him stories of his own grandfather and father, a family tradition of ministers. Jerome’s audio rendition of the book works in me like a devotional. His voice embodies grace and forgiveness. Listening to him can only augment my own reading experience, a performance to emulate for the dance of life.


What are some of your experiences of reading vs. listening to books? Which are your favorite audiobooks?