Ear adventures

I'VE recaptured the delight of being read to. Remember, when you were young, how your ears were glued to the words as you waited for the next exciting turn of the plot? In your mind's eye you saw the pictures: a sinister forest, an angry sea, a beautiful princess, a scaly monster. You heard the language, especially the silly sounds of nonsense language, rhyme, and wordplay. In short, all the pleasures of reading were intensified as they were perceived by the aural sense.

Now I can once more ``read'' with my ears with audio-cassettes. In listening, I've heard more than I imagined was to be found in what I had already read with my eyes. Originally, hearing books was just a way of passing the boring, mechanical drive back and forth to work. It's amazing how painless road construction delays and other traffic jams can be when I'm pleasantly occupied.

In fact, in especially suspenseful, juicy parts of a book, I positively hope for creeping lines of cars, and shutting off the ignition when I finally arrive at my destination is an act of will and discipline when, for instance, ``Die Nadel'' is about to use his stiletto once more.

Over the past several months, I've listened not to the hyped, self-improvement, everyone-a-millionaire books promoted for car listening, but to old and new favorites available at the library. I've heard at least a dozen novels, new and old, from ``Sense and Sensibility,'' ``The Picture of Dorian Gray,'' ``Jane Eyre,'' ``Brave New World,'' ``The Great Gatsby,'' to such thrillers as ``Rebecca,'' ``My Cousin Rachel,'' ``The Thirty-nine Steps,'' ``The Big Sleep,'' and ``The Eye of the Needle.''

It's such a pleasure to greet old friends in another medium and new friends in a different form that I positively seek out situations where I can both listen and do something else. I use the Walkman (surely not as it was intended, to blast the earphones with rock) when I'm exercising or walking. I happily crochet or embroider, mechanical acts that require only occasional attention, as I listen to a book; I lessen the pre-takeoff tension and the boring cramping of plane rides as I await the next turn of plot or exquisitely nasty piece of dialogue.

But the best part is discovering all the things I miss when I read only with my eyes. Like many other readers, I tend to skim so that I can find out what happens next. I can't do that when I listen and so must hear everything the author intended. I hear with cutting clarity, because it's actually being spoken, the character-defining dialogue of, for example, Gatsby's ``old sport,'' with which he hoped to suggest the prep school-cum-Ivy League background he coveted. I hear, in ``Sense and Sensibility,'' the feline Lucy Steele sugaring over her barbs with exaggerated endearments.

The reader on the tape tells me with subtle emphasis of the sterility and coldness of the north-facing Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, whose wintry whiteness ironically adjoins the Fertilizing Room, while Hemingway's Santiago confronts, day after painful day, a sea empty of all but the two players in the battle for survival.

The author speaks directly to me, too. Jane Austen prefigures cynical Mr. Bennet when she writes, in ``Sense and Sensibility,'' ``His [Mr. Palmer's] temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman....''

Knowing the plot and the outcome doesn't seem to interfere with my enjoyment, for in those cases I'm simply attentive to the author's foreshadowing, the little hints casually dropped, and to the ways he keeps me in suspense. Such techniques have often sent me back to the printed page in admiration of the writer's skill.

And the language! It has to be heard for maximum effect. There is the delight of a long, periodic, Victorian sentence that weaves a dense web of meaning:

After a few moments' chat, John Dashwood, recollecting that Fanny was yet uninformed of his sister being there, quitted the room in quest of her; and Elinor was left to improve her acquaintance with Robert, who, by the gay unconcern, the happy self-complacency of his manner while enjoying so unfair a division of his mother's love and liberality, to the prejudice of his banished brother, earned only by his own dissipated course of life, and that brother's integrity, was confirming her most unfavourable opinion of his head and heart. (``Sense and Sensibility'')

It's amazing, though, how clear a good reader can make this sentence to the hearer.

For sheer drama, a good reading aloud can, like a movie, jerk the tears. Even as I know beforehand of the terrible love between Heathcliff and Cathy and its destructive consequence, his plea over her dying body affects me like the goopiest ``soap,'' with a catharsis of tears and pity. I lack the ability many people have of reading imaginatively with the inner eye and ear, and thus a powerful voice and sensitive interpretation of the words can move me as the printed word alone cannot.

Once I had the rare treat of hearing an author read and comment on parts of his own work, in this case, John Knowles on ``A Separate Peace.'' He talked of the dialogue and especially the thoughts in the heads of his two central characters and compared the fictional treatment with the movie to show how the lack of that precious tool, point of view, gives fiction the edge over drama in showing the complexity of the human heart and human rela-tionships.

Best of all, listening has sent me back to reading. Audio technology and literature, like partners in a good marriage, complement and enrich each other. A good book rewards both our eyes and our ears.

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