My favourite place in Hong Kong is forever tied to a book, or rather a scene from an audio book. The spot is a small glade a few kilometres south of Tai O’s salt marshes on the Lantau Trail. Objectively, it’s not much, just a small clearing in the forest, fifty metres where large trees make way for shoulder high bushes. If you ever found yourself walking along section 7 of the Lantau Trail, you would likely pass right through it without a hint of recognition. Just perhaps, if you happened to arrive at this clearing right as the late afternoon sun broke through a cloudy day, you might judge it a pretty spot. But if you were lucky enough to see it lit in warm afternoon sun while listening to The Corrections, particularly the memorable scene in which Chip slips an overpriced piece of wild salmon under his sweater, the glade would form a lasting memory, at least if you were me. For me, that glade will forever be associated with the attempted theft of nearly eighty dollars of wild fish from a trendy New York shop, and The Corrections, as read by George Guidall, will always be a leitmotif of the Lantau Trail.
As leitmotifs go, it is one that can only exist in personal memory. The location and the book have nothing particularly in common, share no themes. Jonathan Franzen is hardly known as a great recorder of Hong Kong life, and there is little in a set piece about the dietary habits of New York’s super rich to associate with the wilds of Lantau. Yet, I can no longer think of one without the other. There must be something in the relationship between audio books and memory because as an avid listener, I find that more and more of my memories are tied to what I was listening to at a given moment. To be sure, this is nothing new. People have long associated vacations with the books they read, movies with former lovers, summers with the songs on the radio. For me, it is just that the soundtrack of my life increasingly features audio books: getting progressively drunker on beer and failing to build an Ikea bed while listening to The Wind up Bird Chronicles; hiking up a rainy Korean mountain to the sound of 1984; cooking pasta in my house at university with The Castle on in the background; standing at a lonely Toronto street corner while learning about The Wisdom of Crowds, laughing outloud to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I pulled into a local gas station. Sometimes the match between the book and memory is apt—rambling in Sussex to Notes from a Small Island and listening to Kafka at Hong Kong immigration come to mind—but most often they are like The Corrections and a glade a little south of Tai-O—a locale and story connected only by me and my iPod.
The growing number of experiences I associate with audio books has a lot to do with the number of them I am getting through; obviously the more books you listen to, the more memories you’ll collect around them. This increasing number has come at the expense of other media. I’ll admit it—I read fewer books, listen to more and more. Exactly zero of my 500 CDs are on my iPod, and I don’t miss them a bit. But it is positively bursting—or at least running very short on memory—with spoken word, particularly audio books.
So what is the appeal? It is partly their ease; it is much easier to listen to a book, then sit down and work through the pages. Like many of us, I fear that the digital world is, if not undermining my ability to focus on long passages, at least providing me with enough distractions to keep from trying. Or maybe I am just tired of reading, even if I am not tackling that many books, it feels like I am looking at words all the time—emails, text messages, the opening few paragraphs of countless articles online (there is that waning focus again), the Evening Standard on my train seat. Sometimes it is nice to just be able to listen to a story and not have to strain your eyes (or endure the conversations around you for that matter).
After all, who doesn’t like being read to? Obviously, a huge appeal of an audio book is the pleasure that we all get from being told a story. I know I certainly do, and did. My mother read extensively to me as a child, but she sometimes outsourced her duties to a number of audio productions we had around the house. One, an LP version of Disney’s adaptation of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was a particular favourite. (I can’t help but hum Peter’s string leitmotif as I type.) We also had a cassette version of 101 Dalmatians that we played to fraying on car trips, and which must have driven my mother to distraction, no matter how engaging the interpretation. Since then I have been hooked; and fortunately the internet and its thousands of audio titles is always there to give me my fix.
To the purists who say that books are meant to be read, not read out, I point only to Charles Dickens. As anyone who has ever heard a convincing reading of A Christmas Carol can attest, there may be no one better to listen to than Dickens. There is a good reason for this, as it turns out. My co-editor Tammy Ho‘s Master’s thesis argued that the author constructed his books with reading aloud in mind, knowing that both he, when he gave a reading, and the public, when they picked up his latest serializations, would share his words with others. You can imagine my delight, therefore, when after I mentioned how much I was enjoying a particular production of Great Expectations, my co-editor suggested I should read the book instead, and I got to gleefully point out that she had spent 40,000 words arguing that the author wanted his words read out and heard, not just taken in by individual pairs of eyes.
This can all go too far. Of course, Great Expectations and all other books are intended to be read by people sitting in a chair, quietly turning the pages. I concede that some things are lost in the translation from paper to mp3. I am sure, for example, my grasp of the arguments I have heard instead of read are less complete and subtle. A book will undoubtedly reveal more when read closely than listened to, especially when that listening is undertaken in conjunction with another activity. Multitasking, that symptom of our schizophrenic world—is undermining the book. Is not even reading sacred?
In my case, no, I am afraid it isn’t. For me, the portability and versatility of the audio book, its multitaskingness, is its greatest virtue. Reading, when done properly, is a thoroughly heads down experience, an activity which excludes all but the simplest of additional tasks—drinking a cup of tea, eating a sandwich, writing in the margins and that is about it. You can’t ride a bike and read, although I did once see somebody trying. With an audio book, you can go out into the world and experience both the story and the environment around you. And the one influences the other, making the experience all the more memorable. Of course, how you read a book is dictated by your age, where you were, how you were feeling. But when consuming an audio book you can add even more inputs and senses to your experience of the story—the feeling of cutting mushrooms, the rain in your face, the sunlight in a small glade along the Lantau Trail.
I have a very vivid memory of listening to Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City while walking around the O2 Arena on a snowy evening, the lights of Canary Wharf ghostly in the distance. And I am sure I recall both the book and the walk the better for the combination. For me, Chronic City was a decent novel, fine as far as it went, but hardly the most memorable I’ve ever read. I doubt I would remember much of it at all if I had been, for example, reading in my house on a snowy day instead of walking along the Thames. And I am sure I would have no recollection of the walk without the sound of Lethem’s prose in my ear. But brought together, they added up to something more. Chronic City is now part of the soundtrack of winter 2009, another New York novel the leitmotif of an otherwise unrelated location.
Which reminds me, it is almost time for my evening constitutional, and I haven’t yet charged my iPod. I wonder how The Fat Years will sound from Woolwich Free Ferry.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
20 November, 2011