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.
The 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?