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The Joy of Not Reading

<i> Times Book Editor </i>

Should the Los Angeles Times Book Review review audiocassettes?

By no means! says the voice of responsibility. Audiocassettes are not books. Let someone else review them. True, audiocassettes are often derived from books, but this is not always so. Many inspirational cassettes--whether the inspiration comes from God or from Lee Iacocca--contain material that has never existed as ink on paper. When audiocassette texts do come from books, they come, often enough, in severely abridged form with little or no indication to the critical reader of what may have been left out. Finally, and more seriously, when unabridged texts are published, they are typically the texts of books that have already gone through both a hardcover and a paperback edition. The audiocassette as a third-stage “reprint” may be a useful product, but does it require a third review?

At best, it would seem, such a third-stage review might end up covering production and performance only: the quality of the sound, the eloquence of the reader, the packaging and program notes, etc. An audiocassette reviewed in this way would be like a play reviewed in revival. And though the review of such a revival might seem legitimate enough in principle, there would be a crucial difference in practice, for the number of important and completely new books in Southern California bookstores vastly exceeds the number of dramatic premieres. It is not likely that a Southern California drama critic will have to pass over an important new play because he has covered a notable revival. Unfortunately, a limitation of just this sort does attend the reviewing of audiocassettes. For every audiocassette “reprint” reviewed, some worthy new book must go unreviewed.

Responsibility speaks well, but against its voice is heard, as ever, the voice of hedonism.

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When audiocassettes began arriving at The Book Review last year, I began listening to them, enjoyed them shamelessly, and am now all but addicted to them. It is not misery alone that loves company: Indulgence does, too. Can there be no middle course between our duty to new authors and the pleasure of this listening?

Audiocassette producers tell me that I am like many listeners in my preference for two kinds of recorded work: the classic or near-classic that I somehow never got around to reading, and the mere entertainment to which I would never have begrudged time from my “real” reading but on which I am willing to waste the already wasted time spent commuting and exercising. As the VCR has led the boom in videocassettes, so have the Walkman and the automobile tape deck led the boom in audiocassettes.

The Los Angeles private car compares extremely well to the bus, train and subway that serve commuters more conspicuously in other cities. The defenders of mass transit in those places admit its defects and dangers but inevitably add, “At least you can read.” Thanks to the audiocassette, Angelenos now have a retort: “True, I can’t read, but I can be read to .”

Even for the youngest of readers, reading is a more rapid, active, acquisitive, impatient process than being read to. Reading silently, you can skip. You can double back and leap forward. You can seize what suits your purposes (never mind the author’s) and discard the rest. You can skim as you please. You can stop cold, close the book and think. These freedoms are, of course, the joys of silent reading. But hearing a work read aloud in its slow, inescapable, word-for-word completeness is another kind of joy. A passive pleasure? Say rather: receptive, unhurried, calm, aware.

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Needless to say, not all prose reads equally well aloud. I recently listened to half a cassette’s worth of Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough” and found it more than enough. Susann may have known how to tell a story, but enjoying her work must require not listening too closely to her flat and tuneless sentences. By contrast, Joseph Wambaugh’s “Lines and Shadows” (Brilliance Corporation) achieves a kind of perfect pitch in the aggressive, slightly embittered interpretation given it by reader Jerry Bozeman; in the most exciting scenes, Bozeman reads at amazing speed but never drops a syllable or confuses any of the several characters he must impersonate. Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” (Listen for Pleasure)--dated at one or two points, feminist-prophetic at several others--is acid elegance in Lauren Bacall’s throaty purr.

Among all the audiocassettes I have heard lately, however, nothing has lingered longer in the mind than “MS Found in a Bottle,” one of several stories read by Paul Scofield on Dove Audio’s “The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.”

I have never much liked Poe. His stature abroad as one of the great American writers has always been--for me, as perhaps for a good many American readers--more irritating than gratifying. The trouble may be that Poe, more than a master of suspense, is a master of descriptive prose in a country that has never been willing to sit still for description. Whence the instructive potential of Edgar on audiocassette; trapped behind the wheel, the hasty American “reader” cannot skip ahead, he must sit still for once and listen to each word: “Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship. A single row of brass cannon protruded from her open ports and dashed from their polished surfaces the fires of innumerable battle lanterns which swung to and fro about her rigging. But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea and of that ungovernable hurricane. When we first discovered her, her bows were alone to be seen as she rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her. For a moment of intense terror, she paused upon the giddy pinnacle as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled, tottered and came down .” Scofield reads all this in the marvelously broken voice of a man so undone by the experience that he can scarcely bear to speak of it.

In short, then, the pleasures and even the pleasurable lessons promised by the hedonism of listening are considerable. And yet the voice of responsibility refuses quite to be stilled. Is there no middle course?

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The middle course that The Book Review will follow for at least some months combines a suggestion perennially made for other reasons with a reflection on the history of paperback publishing. It is perennially suggested that The Book Review should publish the occasional review of a classic work. A worthy suggestion, to be sure: Knowledge lives, after all, by the preservation of knowledge, and hitherto our only gesture in this direction has been the practice of treating any book brought back into print after a lapse of 10 years or more as a new book. As it happens, however, the present period in audiocassette publishing is likely to resemble the mid-'60s in paperback publishing, a time when publishing houses were putting their backlists (and many public-domain titles) into inexpensive editions for the first time. The proportion of classic works among new audiocassette releases will be high for at least a good while, as it was high at that time for new paperback releases.

Our middle course in audiocassette reviewing, therefore, will be to review--on no fixed schedule but fairly often--classic works newly released in audiocassette format. Classic , though defined loosely, will nonetheless be defined clearly enough to rule some titles in and others out: “The Mill on the Floss,” in; “The Sun Also Rises,” in; “Catch-22,” a close one . . . maybe; “Bright Lights, Big City,” out, though I am getting a kick out of Jay McInerney’s cocky 1984 novel in Mark Linn-Baker’s appropriately cocky reading (Random House Audiobooks).

The reviewer will not be an omnicompetent audiocassette specialist but rather, each time out, the best writer we can find for the work under review. But each review will conclude with the mention of several notable new releases of the sort to which we shall not accord a full review. Thus, readers will at least have a chance to hear about “Bright Lights, Big City” and its competitors--works that, by the way, will continue to turn up from time to time in the “Home Tech” section of Calendar.

Condensations and abridgments cannot and will not be ruled out, but we shall tilt noticeably toward unabridged works and toward recordings longer than the four sides/three hours that (for no compelling reason) seem to be becoming the standard. If the time slot into which this new medium is being fit is, especially, the daily commute, there is no reason to confine productions to the length of just two round trips. Producers seem to have the motion picture adaptation roughly in mind as they make their cuts, but why not think instead of “Nicholas Nickleby” or the long-running television series? Literary commuters may be willing to listen to as many “episodes” of “Remembrance of Things Past” or “A Dance to the Music of Time” as the television devout are willing to watch of “Dallas” or “As the World Turns.” An unabridged, perfectly read Proust: I would listen gladly for a year!

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The advent of the pocket tape deck and the automobile tape deck seems to have taken spoken-word recording out of its long infancy and into an active, unpredictable childhood. The Book Review, deserting duty (but only somewhat) for pleasure (but only of the higher sort), hopes to foster its further growth.


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