I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. Central to my reading experience is the rustle of pages, the contemplation of the shapes of letters, appreciation of various fonts. I’m a connoisseur of the vestiges of previous readers—coffee stains, marginalia. I’m a dogearer.
Last spring, however, in the hospital, recovering from emergency surgery, I found myself facing what in a lifetime of reading was an unusual dilemma: I couldn’t handle text. No sooner would I open a book than a headache would blossom around the corners of my eyes, and swiftly come into full bloom. A friend suggested the audio book route, and I went for the next book on my reading list, the latest Claire Messud novel, The Woman Upstairs.
The novel concerns an elementary school teacher who becomes obsessed with the mother of one of her students. This schoolteacher protagonist harbors artistic aspirations, and begins—finally, in middle age—to realize them under the guidance of the student’s mother, who is an artist herself. The book is narrated in the first person, and, over the course of it, the main character, having had a brief flirtation with the husband of the woman with whom she’s obsessed, devolves into a paranoid state approaching psychopathy.
In the hospital, I used headphones connected to my iPhone. With the iPhone in a long pocket of my hospital gown, I ambled down the sterile, pepto-pink hallways, accompanied by my rolling IV stand, listening to this woman tell me about how crazy she was going. This is good, I thought. This, I thought, is the real value of the audio book!
Three days later, and two thirds through The Woman Upstairs, I was released. In the privacy of my home, facing a long recovery, I set up the book on a Jambox speaker, and settled in. Things had gotten rather nutty with the protagonist by this point. And did I mention that Cassandra Campbell, the person narrating on this audio book, is especially effective in conveying the precise tenor of the steady hum of thoughts of a—well—a sort of repressed schoolmarmish person on the edge? I started to get antsy about the whole audio enterprise. Could my neighbors hear me? My landlady lived downstairs. Was I at this very moment being mistaken for The Woman Upstairs? Then again, wasn’t this what various theorists had been telling me about back in college? The collapsing of the boundary between subject and object, reader and book? Was this the true definition of the erotics of the text?
Well, folks, here’s the upshot with audio books: don’t read a long book as an audio book. The Woman Upstairs isn’t very long. If you listen to it on a speaker on full blast in your apartment, you will be mistaken for a crazy person for under a week. Then again, the possibilities for the longer books are intriguing. I for one await someone’s digressive essay, “Ulysses on the Treadmill.”