Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from Audible.ca and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?

Waiting

I sit on a log at the bay, seek words for a strange and unexpected time. I’ve resisted words until now, words on paper, that is, — real or virtual — for there are many words already. Into a new kind of silence, a constant bustle of noise. It’s like everyone is talking at once. News, zoom meetings, invitations to Ted talks and re-configured choirs and spoken poems, virtual museums to visit, prompts for writing, prompts for art, tips for productivity, soothing reminders that productivity is not required. Words for information, words for grief and uncertainty and craziness.

The daily cacophony of pot-banging and honking and shouting at 7 p.m. seems about the truest we can do, word-wise. And the constant true refrain: we’re in it together.

Except that this is hard to believe. We can’t touch. We veer away from others’ breath. We’re in it together, we say, but each of us is keenly, separately Body now and our individual skin aches for contact and disbelieves assurances of together.

The tide is out. There are people on the mud flats. Putting floaters into distant water. Walking dogs. Everyone careful in their social-distancing zone. I step on to the flats, walk water-ward too. I have new shoes, grey Skechers with pink laces, blissfully comfortable, no breaking-in necessary, and then I notice their imprint in wet black sand and suddenly I notice many marks of other shoes. (Bare feet too). Crisscrosses, vertical lines, circles. Each brand unique. Who knew the underside of shoes had such variety? For a while I am thoroughly absorbed in the moment.

But eventually one needs to find language for the moments we’re in.

Waiting, that’s the word. That’s the sum of it. No wonder it’s hard to read or write with any kind of focus. The kind of waiting you undergo in a waiting room, like maybe the doctor’s office, some place where you have an appointment and you pick up a magazine and browse, listlessly, for you can’t concentrate, you’re alert to your name being called and everything is running late and it’s a watchful waiting laced with anxiety.

For about a week, I wasn’t well. I was afraid then. The inspiration of well people irritated me then. In my fear I wondered what I needed to still do or say. Just in case. Do: nothing. Say: a note in my journal to my children and grandchildren. I’m halfway embarrassed about it now, halfway ashamed. I was tested for Covid. The test was negative. In retrospect, I had an ordinary flu, an ordinary migraine. This time is strange and unexpected and I couldn’t see my ill-health clearly for what it merely was. I was continuously conscious of my breath. All I needed was air in my lungs, and I had it, but what if I lost it?

I’m surprised now how desperate I was over the possibility of not having it. Haven’t I considered myself a person of equanimity?

Waiting. It’s not the present that disappears, but the future. The main question on our lips is when?

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With the granddaughter. Before Covid.

The nine-year-old granddaughter texts: “COVID-19 is a nightmare, it is the worst thing in the world I’ve ever heard of. [Weeping emoji] But I’m somehow surviving it all. [A cluster of happier emojis.]” In her short world, definitely the worst. No school, no playdates. Yes, I say to her, the worst thing in the world.

But I’ve lived longer. I make myself read, make myself think into the past. If the future is failing us, or the assumption, at least, that the future is ours for the taking, perhaps I can be wiser, more robust, about the past. I read Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set in the time of the terrible influenza plague after the First World War. I finally read Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and think, that was worse, a siege so long, and hatred woven into it. Hatred and killing is worse. I have to find my reading among the unread books on my shelves, so I also finally read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and I’m touched by the old couple Axl and Beatrice and their tender love and the courage it takes to remember. The courageous necessity to remember. 

The lives of we two in our apartment aren’t, ultimately, so very different than before. We haven’t lost jobs, don’t have a house lively with children to teach and console. Nevertheless, we’re in it, we too, even though our skin, scrubbed clean more often than ever before, aches and finds it hard to believe together.

I remember Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s words and they orient me: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

And these, encountered in an interview at Paris Review with Marilynne Robinson: “One thing that comes with the [religious] tradition is the idea that you’re always being posed a question: what does God want from this situation? It creates a kind of detachment, but it’s a detachment that brings perception rather than the absence of perception.”