Lisa Gornick on the pleasures — and perils — of audiobooks

Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear (just published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on June 9), Tinderbox (hardcover SCB/FS&G 2013, paperback Picador 2014), and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives with her husband and two sons on New York City’s Upper West Side. This is a re-post of an essay originally written for Read Her Like an Open Book in July 2014. 

I’ve never been in a book group  — I’ve always preferred to read what is idiosyncratically imperative to me — but a few years ago, I joined a group with three other writers in which we read like mechanics with an eye to how the book is put together: structure, point of view, passage of time, unfolding of plot. For our last book, one of the group members suggested The Goldfinch. I was knee-deep in a draft of my new novel and, as the date approached, I still had a terrifying 700 pages to read. As a solution, I decided to download the Audible version, something — Luddite, physical book reader that I am — I’d never done before.

Within minutes,  I was hooked. The narrator, who my eleven year old recognized as David Pittu, reader of the wildly popular children’s 39 Clues series, is an astoundingly good actor. I fell in love with Pittu’s interpretations of potty-mouth Boris and twangy Xandra and adenoidal Andy, took to walking everywhere so I could justify more time listening, and then took to listening while reading!

Of course, Donna Tartt has to be credited for creating these characters and some of the best dialogue I’ve read (or maybe should say heard) — but without the child-like pleasure of being read to and the child-like state of mind that put me in (by an actor, skilled at reading to children), I might have resonated more strongly with some of the novel’s critics who’ve objected to the sloppiness (see Francine Prose’s powerful critique) and the fairy tale quality of the story.  Not under Pittu’s spell, I would have been more bothered by the novel’s murky philosophical underpinnings that rest on the answer to the question: If a building is burning and you have to choose between saving the cat and the Rembrandt, what would you do?

Bereft after finishing The Goldfinch­­ — more, I have to admit, because I missed being read to during dish washing and teeth brushing than because I missed Theo Decker — I downloaded Nicole Kidman narrating To the Lighthouse. I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms. Kidman  (especially after seeing her post-Botox face), but I loved her brave performance in the movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s tour de force, The Hours. Well, Ms. Kidman, it turns out, is a sensitive and subtle reader — I felt as though I were seeing the brutal fractured beauty of life through Woolf’s eyes —  and apparently has been an ardent one since childhood when her parchment skin forced her to stay indoors with Dostoevsky rather than going to the Australian beach.

Oh, no, what to do after this was over? Out of order, but still the obvious choice: Mrs. Dalloway. By now, I understood that who narrates is key — and when I went to purchase my Audible version, it occurred to me to sample a few of the readers. Sorry, Annette Bening. Though I loved you in The Kids are All Right and American Beauty, you are not my Clarissa. But the wonderful British actress, Juliet Stevenson: What a lark! What a plunge! as Clarissa might say.

What’s next? I seem to be on a classics jag, so I think it will be Middlemarch, which I haven’t revisited since college. But, I’m going to read it to myself. Delicious as being read to is, it’s not the same as being alone with a book. There are reasons why children begin reading to themselves — including that they want to experience a book without an adult’s intervening interpretation. No matter the listener’s age, no matter how extraordinary the narrator, he or she intrudes on the private exchange between writer and audience, a sacred space, all the more so in our times when solitude requires conscious effort.

Turning The Goldfinch over to David Pittu to read to me was a short cut — not just with respect to my time, but also with respect to the work of reading: imagining bodies and how they resonate through voices, interpreting punctuation and where the stresses and pauses for breath lie, viscerally absorbing the density of print on a page and the presence or absence of white space. Listening to someone else read a book aloud means letting someone else do a good chunk of that work and, as is so often the case with short cuts, it is the short-cut taker who ultimately loses: fails to develop or atrophies. The truth is, after only a month’s foray into listening to books, I can sense my reading muscle slackening.

Juliet Stevenson reads — in 36 hours — Middlemarch.  Oh, I am tempted.  What a lark!  But as Clarissa would say, No! No! No!


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