A guest post by Linda Ferguson
Linda Ferguson is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been published in Fiction at Work, Pure Francis, Saranac Review, and other journals. She also teaches dance and creative writing to school children.
I’ll confess: I love being read to as much as I love reading. Yes, I have a degree in English, and no, I’m not four years old. Still, I love hearing written words roll off another person’s tongue and the inflections that he or she uses to bring all of the nuances of a story to life.
I discovered this when my son, Ben, was attending a middle school across town, and I was driving him home every afternoon. I’ve always felt that time alone in the car is time wasted. I’d rather be outside hanging laundry to dry or in the kitchen cooking a new soup. To entertain myself on the way to pick up Ben, I started borrowing books on tape from the library. The first one—The Bondwoman’s Narrative—became one of my favorites, with its spine-tingling story (complete with candles and creaking branches), as well as an enthralling introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explaining the detective work that went into proving this may be the only novel by a female African American slave. What’s more, actress Anna Deveare Smith’s oddly understated reading (an almost deadpan delivery) juxtaposed with the exciting narrative of an escaped slave and made it even more absorbing.
Since this wasn’t the type of novel I ordinarily read, in the traditional way, with my eyes, I began to realize that recorded books could introduce me to other authors and topics I might not otherwise approach. Soon to follow was Neal Bascomb’s A Perfect Mile, which had me cheering for Roger Bannister like a seasoned sports fan, despite the fact that my own days as an athlete ended after I squeaked through tenth grade P.E. Another surprise was the beauty and suspense of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Finder,” although I’d previously had as much interest in sci-fi/fantasy as I did in packing my bags and moving to Mars. Darker tales, too, have become more accessible to me. I might not have finished Michael Ondaatje’s tale of Sri Lankan terror if it weren’t for the sly, sensitive voice of Alan Cumming, and I’m sure I never would have survived Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart without the help of Peter Francis James. Like a hand holding a needle, his patient baritone pulled me through the fabric of a harsh, foreign culture where the main characters earned their status by storing yams before the British imperialists imposed a devastatingly different order on the clan.
Listening to books has made me a more ambitious visual reader as well. Sailing beyond the safe harbor of old favorites such as Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Tyler, lately I’ve been taking on the page-long paragraphs of Henry James. Although he seems to have written The Ambassadors in code, I’ve discovered that the painstaking effort I’ve put into deciphering his long, complex sentences provides as much pleasure as the clear and simple syntax of more modern authors.
Even if they weren’t so broadening, recorded books have the advantage of making a host of tedious tasks more enjoyable. Every time I walk through my yellow hallway, I remember painting it while listening to Diane Johnson’s French farce Le Marriage. I’ve also mopped the kitchen floor while Tom Jones romped with his lady friends in the background, and I actually volunteered to wash the after-dinner dishes so that I’d have an excuse to hear A.S. Byatt’s literary love story Possession.
For many adult readers, listening to books is best left to preschoolers sitting cross-legged on colorful carpet squares. It’s something that intelligent, dignified people just don’t do—like throwing tantrums in the grocery store or licking the bottom of an ice cream bowl. But recorded books have introduced me to characters who are separated from me by geography, time, and experience, and I’ve fallen under their spell because they feed—and stimulate—my desire to stretch and learn and feel connected to someone different from myself. Or maybe I simply love listening to these recordings because I’ve never outgrown the need to sit down and hear a good story.