Listening to books was, and is, a project about which I am conflicted. For reasons I don't quite understand, I dislike being read to, and prefer to have text be a starting point for inserting myself in another narrative world (is this why the young enjoy video games?) On the other hand, when I first tried listening to books in the 1990s, I had a highly literary and elderly friend who was losing her eyesight and, sadly, her capacity to read. Books were something we shared, part of the glue of our friendship. In addition to spending my commuting time in the car in a more elevated way, listening to these books allowed me to prolong an intellectual relationship that might otherwise have become restricted by her disability.
I am now nearly twenty years older: my elderly friend passed on about a decade ago, I no longer commute such a long distance (although I drive a minimum of 50 minutes a day, four days a week, on the low side for Nutmeg staters), and I am far closer to a time when I might, myself, be unable to see well enough to read. When I discovered that I could download MP3 files directly to my iPhone, I thought, Why not improve the moment and try again? Listening to books might, after all, be an acquired taste; and I never get to read as much during the term as I like.
So I signed up for Audible.com, purchased a cord to plug my iPhone into the auxiliary jack in the new Toyota, and I was off.
But what to choose? I decided to go with something in which I was interested, but might not otherwise read: Lady Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (reviewed here by Blake Morrison of The Guardian.) As soon as I began listening, I began to worry that -- well, I didn't like her, and that I would have to stop, something I had not expected. To forge on, I came up with reasons for our differences, which I think had principally to do with her hero worship for Pinter. Fraser is, of course, a biographer, which I kept reminding myself at the frequent points where she subsumed her own story to Pinter's, which is what a biographer would do on principle; she is a popular writer, and he is a Nobel laureate; and she makes a point of distancing herself from feminism at various points in the narrative and naturalizing certain kinds of gender hierarchy. A leftist, Fraser's non- (rather than anti-) feminism becomes particularly clear when she happily marches to the polls to cast her vote for Margaret Thatcher in May, 1979, so pleased is she with the idea that Thatcher will become the first woman PM (yes, Antonia, but that woman?)
But instead of reviewing the book (which is, in the end, as Antonia would say "a lark!"), let me just summarize what I think, at this point, is the difference between listening and reading.
Listening takes longer. While the time might have been compressed had I not confined myself to listening only in the car, by reading it I would have finished a book of this nature in about a day. Listening in the car took me about ten days, which was a long time to live with these people. That said, I grew more rather than less involved with them; I was often eager to get back to the "book;" and I was thus happier in my commute than I have been in years. A prolonged exposure to the ins and outs of Pinter at the height of his success and political activism also made me want to read his plays from beginning to end.
The tone of the prose changes when read, and heard, aloud. Perhaps it was the irritatingly lilting accent of the British actress tasked with Fraser's voice, but turns of phrase and choices of language I might not have noticed as I read grated on me, as did the winsome upswing of tone at the end of sentences and paragraphs. It misrepresented Fraser as a lightweight; differently, the male actor who leaped in from time to time to read Pinter's poetry, was firm, decisive and substantive, snapping out his sentences with a snap and a bang. This made the book very highly gendered, in addition to being almost cartoonishly heterosexual. Hyperbole -- something I have never noticed about Fraser's prose -- stands out in a way I'm not sure it would as one's eyes dash over the page. Women are "raven-haired;" plays are "brilliant successes" or "disasters;" men are "dashing" and "heroic." This can be irritating, as can turns of phrase which forecast the loss of Pinter almost as soon as they meet -- the title, "Must you go?" is one of them.
Listening, the first chapters seem positively mawkish at times, interspersed as they are with stuffy, British-y scenes where the Pinters and the Frasers rearrange their households, a process that is utterly civilized but for actress Vivien Merchant, a binge drinker who did not like being usurped as Pinter's wife and muse by a swanky peeress and acted out in a way that would be perfectly normal in the United States. There is one hilarious chapter where the affair is admitted to all around, and Harold calls formally upon Hugh Fraser (as one might have called upon a father decades ago) for drinks to let him know that he is reliable and serious in his intentions towards Antonia. The two men chat -- not about her, but about cricket -- for hours, and Antonia falls asleep on the couch. When she wakes up Hugh has handed her over to Pinter like the agreeable chap he was, and everyone parts friends. Conveniently, Hugh then dies seven years later, and Antonia can remarry and be a good Catholic too!
The diary format is tedious. The memoir is reconstructed from Fraser's journals, which Pinter read from time to time and annotated with his own memories and observations. Strange but true, although it is a glimpse into how very intimate the couple was. This is also a jarring detail. Because the actress reads everything that is printed, she also reads the dates -- something you might not notice when reading. "October 4. Blah, blah October 26. Blah blah. November 14...." There is this sense of being force-marched through someone's life which is hard to shake, and a compulsion to do the math: "Let's see, Pinter dies on Christmas Eve 2008, so they have approximately 24 years, eight months and six days left to go."
It is easy to miss important points if you lack prior knowledge, or are misinformed, about them. For example, Fraser kept referring to someone named "Poole" to whom she was related, who was clearly a Big Deal, but I couldn't figure out why. I was well into the book before I discovered, because of a reference to one of his major works, Dance to the Music of Time, that she was referring to Anthony Powell, which I have never heard pronounced "Poole." As it turns out, that was something I had gotten wrong from reading, but never really discussing Powell's novels -- which is kind of interesting if you think about it.
You can't take notes. There is a function which allows you to mark passages in the Audible file, but doing this in the car strikes me as hazardous, so I didn't try. This means my constant thought -- "I must do a blog post!" was accompanied by the daily realization that I would have to retrain my memory to remember enough about the book to do so. Will I be able to do this? Will it be good for my aging cerebellum? Only time will tell.
A final note is that buying these Audibles, even with the monthly subscription costs as much or more than buying the book-object. On a certain level this is fine: it's a greener process, for sure, and I am getting to a point where I don't want things in my library that are not of some lasting value to me. However, it does make it difficult to share a book, as the files are not easily transferred to a third-party, and you certainly can't read it together.