I gave up TV this week, and by “gave up TV,” I mean I gave up watching television shows on the internet. I don’t actually have a TV, but having a computer is bad enough. It’s actually been a lot easier than I expected not to watch any TV at all…the only times I’ve been sorely tempted are in the first few minutes after I get home from work, when I all I want to do is curl up and do something mindless. The only real hitch in this plan has been that I’m in the midst of knitting a scarf that has a deadline (it’s a gift for a birthday that’s rapidly approaching) and while the whole point of not watching any tv was to give myself more time to read (and to force myself to do so), I haven’t yet discovered a way to read and knit at the same time.
Instead of postponing No TV Week until after I finished the scarf, I sorted through all my cds and found a few audio books I hadn’t know were in my apartment. So for a day and a half I’ve been listening to my old cd set of The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White, read by the author. When I was younger, I used to listen to this cd over and over again for weeks as I was falling asleep. Listening to it again has reminded me how much I love audio books, and how much I love reading aloud.
Most of my favorite audio books are things I listened to when I was younger…back when “audiobook” meant “book on tape,” or, just as likely in my family, “book taped from the radio.” It’s actually a little strange listening to The Trumpet of the Swan again after all these years. Part of this is that after years of critical training, any book I return to–especially those I read or listened to as a child–is likely to seem different now. I’m so aware of structure now, of the decisions that are being made with every inclusion or exclusion, and I have a tangle of literary and critical theories just waiting to rip previously scrutinized childhood favorites apart. I think the most jarring thing about The Trumpet of the Swan, which I still love (particularly with E.B. White’s voice, and his accent, which sounds most clearly on words that come up a lot, like “water”) is how Louis (the young swan born without a voice who’s at the center of the story) is referred by his father, and then comes to think of himself as, “defective.” I know what bothers me about this word is largely just an evolution of (or maybe the evolution of) political correctness–but “defective” just seems like such a cruel word to use to describe a voiceless baby swan. And yet, I still love hearing this book again after all these years, listening to the cob’s pomposity, or Sam Beaver’s earnest diary entries, or Louis, playing taps.
Actually, the music in The Trumpet of the Swan is one of the parts I remember most clearly. Similarly, I listened to public radio broadcasts of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books so many times that their theme music stayed in my head for years, until finally I tracked down the composer and bought the actual album itself (Woodland Sketches by James Barbagallo, 1952-1996. The first track was the theme for Farmer Boy). I also remember listening to Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol on the radio.
And there are the great versions of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery, read by Megan Follows; sadly, I think they’re both abridged (though well-abridged), but Megan Follows is the actress who played Anne in the TV movies co-starring the inimitable Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. I still regularly tear up whenever I hear Anne’s conversation with Ruby Gillis in Anne of Avonlea, and laugh out loud when Anne gets Diana drunk on “raspberry cordial.” But I think I’ve now admitted enough about my attachment to the red-headed orphan girl and her life on Prince Edward Island.
I also vividly recall a series of short stories we used to listen to in the car. I think it was called Listening for the Crack of Dawn, which would make the author Donald Davis (thanks, google). I also used to listen to two BBC radio plays (the first of which is next up on the scarf-finishing audio book playlist), the first being the original BBC Radio 4 version of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the second (and technically I guess, the third) being the fantastic BBC productions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the latter featuring Ian Holme as the peerless voice of Frodo . I can still recall with bone-chilling exactitude the entire scene with Shelob toward the end of The Two Towers, and (from The Hobbit) the initial riddling scene when Bilbo first meets Gollum, deep inside the goblins’ cave, not to mention the scene with the trolls, or that first scene when all the dwarfs arrive at Bilbo’s, or the invisible, ring-wearing Frodo’s conversations with Smaug, or all the songs that Tolkien wrote throughout the series. Oh so good. I enjoyed all the movies, but they’ve got nothing on the radio adaptions.
I’d be completely remiss to write a post about audio books without mentioning Jim Dale’s amazing readings of every book in the Harry Potter series. He probably creates at least as many individual character voices on his own as both the BBC radio plays did using full casts. He’s made many a road trip much easier on me (and my companions), and I’ve had Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as my go-to sleep-aid for months now.
My all-time favorite book on tape has to Madeleine L’Engle’s reading of her book (one of my favorite books) A Wrinkle in Time. She has such a unique voice and manner of speaking–rough, and almost brusque without being either cold or unfriendly–and she imbues the book’s many characters, particularly Mrs. Who, Mrs. What, and Mrs. Which, with both distinctiveness and depth. And the book is great (great great!). I would have provided links to as many of the audio versions mentioned here as possible, but it’s late, I’m sick, and I have to work tomorrow, so I’m only linking to this page, which contains samples of Madeleine L’Engle reading aloud from many of her different books. But if you like audiobooks, I definitely recommend tracking any of these titles down…they make great Christmas presents. For me, or, you know, for other people too.