I’m a fervent enthusiast of audio media, from old radio drama to modern radio drama and audiobooks of all stripes, and despite being a voracious reader of tattered paper books in my youth (and still, though more on digital readers lately), I’m increasingly of the opinion that, in contrast to the nostalgic claims that books are the grand tradition of literacy and stories told aloud on tape/disc/data are the brash upstart, oral storytelling is innate to humans (obviously with allowances to be made for reasons of hearing/neurodivergence) and has been for a hundred thousand years, while books available on scale to the masses are more or less a mostly post-20th century phenomenon.
There’s definitely a lot of variation in how successful an audiobook is for me, where I normally eschew the sort of television voice of chirpy, over-emoted, hand-waving-by-emphasis that’s popular in television and streaming video because somewhere along the way we collectively decided that being a good storyteller involves a lot of gestures and mugging for the camera and voice actors have had to keep up, and sometimes find the stumbling, not-great readings of amateur readers on Librivox titles a better listen than the Hollywood-ified big star reading. I sometimes enjoy a reading with different people for different parts, sometimes prefer a level-headed read, like the calm unfolding voice of Malcolm Hillgartner on the unabridged audiobook of E.B. White’s essays. Sometimes I like a really Radiolabbed-up combination of sound and music, like an audiobook of Neuromancer that I really enjoyed a couple decades ago from the library and have never been able to find since, and sometimes, a really flat, placid reading in its own silent space is best.
I would never want to hear Sedaris, Pema Chödrön, John Waters, or Grace Paley read in any voice but their own, but I’m fine with other voices tackling writers not so established or accomplished as speakers. The thing is, it’s really hard to just set a hard and fast rule for what will work for me and make it stick. To put it in musical terms—I absolutely adore what Michael Tilson Thomas did with The Rite of Spring, one of my lifetime favorite works of aural art, but I never fell in love with Reich’s The Desert Music until I heard the electrifying rendition by Alarm Will Sound, that went to the rock and roll extremes of the piece in a way that Tilson Thomas’ sedate, lingering, sober and ultimately classically wallowy approach never did. The reading that works is the one that works, drawing you close and clutching you by the heart and never, ever letting go after that in an echo that draws you back to the narrative throughout your life.
I used to work in a little room rendered almost unbreathable by anhydrous ammonia leaking from an aging Xidex D-80 diazo microfiche duplicator, lit overhead with yellow-tinted fluorescent lights that protected the film from exposure to blue light, and I’d sit there in a haze of atmosphere more appropriate to Neptune while listening to our tape duplicator running off distribution copies of the cockpit voice recordings of crashing airplanes as I examined photos of the crash victims with a loupe clamped to my eye, making a quick check of all the details to ensure that every copy we released for NTSB requests was accurate. It was a strange time, when I was 18, adrift, recently expelled from high school and without a clear idea of where to go next, and I literally spent eight hours of every work day looking at mangled corpses and hearing the burble of increasingly resigned pilots heading to their deaths as a machine clicked off thousands of microfiche copies of the crash reports for the armies of lawyers, lawmakers, and investigators seeking out what to do next.
What I listened to as an escape was WPFW, a local Pacifica station out of nearby DC that played all sorts of odd an interesting things each day that were heavily focused on the black community in the District, and the thing that held me up through a career stretch that I’ve since realized probably gave me some level of PTSD in the way that people paid a pittance for screening porn and gore out of social media are suffering now was a spot every day on the radio when a reader would read through some amazing books in a warm, intimate voice, proceeding unabridged through the texts over weeks, in an hour per day.
The Color Purple knocked me out in that little liver-lit room, where the only window, with a heavy yellow tint, looked out on a scruffy pair of rail lines between rows of weathered cinderblock buildings and I’d have to keep my ears open for train horns, which signaled me to stop the microfiche duplicator while freight trains would rumble through as not to blur my duplicates, starting it again as they’d pull away. I got to know Celie and Nettie and Shug and the other characters there, with all the torrential calamity of plane crashes falling away from me as that voice patiently played out the stories day after day, week after week, in an electromagnetic version of the old circle around the nighttime campfire. I started queuing up a tape each day to capture the story so I could listen again in my battered old Datsun, slogging painfully around the Beltway to my apartment in Bladensburg, though I wish in retrospect I’d thought to save these.
After The Color Purple, though, the reader started the next book, The Women of Brewster Place, and I was lifted, bodily, into other lives in a way that few things have before or since. I can’t even really describe what it did, though the way those stories circle in space, coming together in an overall narrative that didn’t follow any of the rules of the “great American novel” I was led to think were the hallmarks of great literature, reprogrammed my code, real deep down, and when I started to tell stories myself, I’ve always followed that new pattern printed on my neural network.
I was so engrossed, in fact, that on the day when a delivery van on the road about a thousand feet north of my little room took a chance to dart around the descended gates at the crossing and lost, I was so shocked by a sudden turn in the narrative of one character I’d bonded with over days that the colossal slam of the train hitting the van had me stand to stop the microfiche duplicator in a kind of daze, and as the slowing train pushed the train past my window, I made brief eye contact with the very surprised-looking driver of the van as the locomotive pushed it past at what seemed like a languid pace, and I was convinced he, too, had been listening to the same story.
Is that some shit or what? we said with our eyes (at least I thought we said), and then he was gone, and all that was left was the slowing flanks of boxcars covered in rust, the livery of long-deceased railroads, and wild graffiti.
I was afraid to read The Women of Brewster Place as a paper book for decades, because it was so much a thing that a gentle reader had poured into me, but on finally revisiting, I was pleased to note how much it just felt familiar, even in its tragedy, loss, and thwarted optimism. The reading was magic in a world where we’re always told magic no longer exists, or maybe never did, and yet here we are—in a place in which a voice pushing air around can build whole realms out of nothing.
I wonder sometime, if we’d ever arrive at a place where books, read aloud, could exist in multiple variations, read in different ways, in the same way I have twenty variations on The Rite of Spring in my music library, each on its own vision and some better than others, but often serving to bring my focus to a different angle in the musical narrative, out there to find the people who it could carry through a train crash observed from a little yellow room hanging inexplicably alone in the atmosphere of Neptune. It’s probably optimism, but perhaps in the era of the podcast, these things will come around.
In the meantime, I make time each night to sit in the chair next to the bed where the inexplicable kid in my life is waiting and read another chapter or two from my own favorites, often having to edit out, in real time, some of the racist dialect out of A Cricket In Times Square and figure out how to do the voices for all the absurd characters in The Phantom Tollbooth or just settle into an even-paced voice to unfurl the action in The Borrowers.
As the world starts to open up again, too, I’m looking forward to assembling my little live rig of synthesizer, processors, and microphones and seeking out venues for my little side hustle as a peculiar raconteur électronique telling inconsequential stories to small audiences. I’ve also done “naked” storytelling for Risk! and Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling and others, and I enjoy that, too, mainly because I don’t have to carry gear around, but it is so fun to be able to use sound as another tool in the storytelling toolbox that I usually count stories+sound+music as my favorite variation on the theme.
© 2022 Joe Belknap Wall