Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Audio Book Experience: Musings on Being Read To and Reading Out Loud

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I have never been much of an audiobook kind of guy. I like reading. I’ve always felt a kind of snobbery about the audiobook, as if somehow the actual reading of text on a page and making all of the voices and inflections and imagery happen in one’s head is a more rigorous endeavor, that listening is kind of like cheating. This may or may not be true–and it comes from a guy who loves to read out loud for a listening audience, be they students or readers of my fiction or fellow writers. Maybe it’s the actor in me–but I think reading out loud to an audience or being read to can be a kind of transformative experience.  More on this later.

I recently tried audible.com, and some time ago I finished listening to my first ever unabridged audio book: Robin E. Black​’s  Life Drawing. I loved the experience. The writing, clearly exquisite and wise, but the performance by Cassandra Campbell was pretty phenomenal. And I’m amazed, but not surprised, how the audiobook experience can be so totally shaped by the performance of the reader.  After that first successful round I tried a sample of another book I have been interested for a long time in reading, but the voice of the reader bothered me to such a degree that I could not go through with it.

I tried again with a book I have on my shelf, started reading some years ago now and for some reason gave up on, Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I love Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel Housekeeping is still for me one of the greatest American novels of the last half of the 20th century.  So I didn’t give up on Home because of a lack of interest, but rather for the reason I give up on a lot of reading projects these days: I get distracted and I move on to another thing.  It’s not a characteristic for which I am especially proud.  So I downloaded Home from audible.com.  It took me awhile, but I finally, on Father’s Day in fact, listened to the novel’s conclusion–but with this exception: for the last 50 pages or so of the novel, I pulled the book down off of the shelf and I read along with the audio.

I do not own a copy of Robin Black’s novel. I listened to that entire audiobook and, as I’ve said, it was a great experience, but I would find my brain, every now and again, drifting away from the narrative, trying to go somewhere else, and frustrated, I would sometimes have to listen again to entire sections–in the same way, I suppose, we have to reread a paragraph from an actual book when our minds wander away. Not a reflection at all on the quality of the writing or the performance of the reader–it’s all pretty much our fault, the fault of a recalcitrant brain.  But I found, when I picked up Robinson’s novel and read along while I was listening, something really wonderful happened with my level of engagement, my comprehension, and my emotional investment.  I was all over it.

I think I understand the appeal for most folks about audio books.  If you like to read but have to drive a lot and it kills your leisure time for reading, audio books are good.  If you like to work out, are a runner or a gym frequenter, audio books are a good way to exercise the mind WHILE you do the whole body thing.  If you can’t read, or don’t read well, and like the idea of experiencing this thing called a book, audio books may be of some help.  But I think I, as a recent convert to the audio book experience, appreciate the audio book in a different way–and who knows, maybe there are others in the same boat. As I said above, I love to read out loud, to an audience, sure, but often, if I can manage it, alone in the house or lounging in the yard, to myself. Yes, I love to read out loud to myself.  And here’s the key reason I find the audiobook, in particular the audiobook in companionship and in tandem with the actual analog book, to be so rewarding.

The brain wants to go places.  Specifically, the brain wants to go other places while reading. The brain has to have total buy-in and focus for its host human to be able to read well.  Some people are gifted as readers, or rather, they’ve worked really hard in the practice of reading, and this kind of concentration is second nature to them. Most of us, I bet, are not in this boat.  Sometimes as a reader, I’m on fire.  But most of the time, I have difficulty attending for long periods at a stretch, UNLESS, I am reading out loud.  Or, as I’ve discovered recently, I am reading with my eyes while listening to an effective reading performance recorded for my pleasure and edification by some professional voice actor.

Here’s what happens, and it’s what I would argue happens when I read out loud to students most of the time. The eyes are seeing the words and the brain is doing that whole incredible decoding thing, and on top of the decoding, the brain does that whole comprehension thing where squiggly markings become abstract sounds which become words which become concepts and images which strung together with other concepts and images become meaningful sentences that tell a story, prove a point, or a million other things. On top of that already sophisticated brain activity, the ears are hearing the sounds and the words and the sentences and the brain is decoding that as well and ultimately it’s as if the reader is reading twice, two times simultaneously.  Two times the comprehension.  Two times the enjoyment.  It’s like a chorus of understanding and appreciation. So that’s part of it.  I read better when I am seeing, speaking, and listening, or at least two of these three in tandem.

But there’s another aspect to reading out loud or being read out loud to that is not about comprehension but about community, connection, and intimacy.  I think there is something so integral and profound and ancient about the act of oral storytelling, first of all in public or in a public way, e.g., the public reading in classrooms, bookstores, libraries, and theaters, or the public availability and consumption of the audio book, but secondly, and more profoundly, perhaps, the reading out loud in private and in partnership.  I love to read out loud to my son. Before my son was born and we had more time, my wife and I used to take turns reading out loud to each other, a ritual I sorely miss. I don’t even know if I have the words to express what this particular practice has meant to me.  Would it be illegal to close by quoting a William Stafford poem in its entirety?  I’m going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.  It’s that good.  It’s that important.  Good night.  Find somebody who will read out loud with you.

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A Talk at the 2015 Rex Putnam High School Graduation Ceremony

Class of 2015: Good morning!

Many of you have seen a music video on youtube in which a young man wearing a yellow suit, a blue bow tie, and beige converse high tops, bounces up and down, gestures maniacally, and moves rhythmically in a way that sort of resembles “dancing;” his eye make-up is sweating off, and he’s lip syncing to a song he wrote about a “blue refrigerator.” Have you seen this thing? Okay, well, I have a confession to make. That guy was me. I know. I was that guy.

It was 1987, I was probably not more than three years older than you are now, having dropped out of college because my parents had not anticipated me wanting to go and had run out of money, and having recently tied the proverbial knot with my high school sweetheart, I thought for sure, with all of my soul, that I was going to be a rock and roll star, that I would make my living making weird rock music about kitchen appliances and I would only have to work at 7-11 until I signed the multi-album record contract.

This is just to say that when I was your age I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That’s not entirely true. How about this: I didn’t know where I was going. I would not have been able to tell you that by some fluke of super dumb luck, I would be able to finish my English degree and continue on for a Masters in Teaching at a swanky private school, tuition free. I would not have predicted, in my wildest dreams, even after I decided that teaching might be a thing, that first of all, it would be a profession that I would love, and that secondly, I would end up spending an entire career back where I had started—at my alma mater—at Rex Putnam High School. You think 4 years is a long time? Try 31.

To start with, if my job tonight is to impart some kind of wisdom to you good people about your future, here’s the first part:

You have no idea. You have no idea.

Looking back I think that I should have been absolutely terrified. To be 21, married, working at a convenient store: terrifying. But I wasn’t terrified. And neither should you be. Maybe you’re as clueless now as I was then, or maybe you have some notion, some direction, or maybe some of you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but I’m telling you, you will go mostly blind into the future, and the challenge is to be prepared for all kinds of surprises, to be okay with that, to revel in the uncertainty of it, the ambiguity of it all, the mystery, the adventure, and, as Rilke advised us, to “learn to love the questions themselves.”

I’m having a déjà vu moment here. In 1983 I spoke at my high school graduation. I was Grant Luecke, a less impressive Grant Luecke(1).  I only remember one thing I said. I concluded with some family story about my dad taking me to the oyster beds at Hood’s Canal and rewarding me with a drink of his beer if I could swallow a raw oyster from the shell. And the whole point of that little anecdote was to say to my classmates that the world was their oyster and that they should eat it raw.

What a dumb thing to say.

I mean yeah, okay, we’ve all heard the cliché, yes, that the world is our oyster, but no, it’s really not. It is not a thing to be swallowed or eaten or conquered—it owes us nothing—and we have no right to demand that it fulfills all of our wishes. So one of the reasons I am so honored and thankful to the class of 2015 for inviting me to speak at your graduation, is I finally get to revise the speech I gave 32 years ago. And to deliver it in a better venue. In my day, we held the graduation ceremony in the gym at Rex Putnam. That’s right.

So, how would I revise that “world is your oyster” piece of non-wisdom nonsense?

I guess I would advise against the notion that your job from here on out is to go out and “get,” but rather, your job is to go out and “be,” to go out and “live,” to go out and “connect” meaningfully, respectfully and joyfully with people and the world, and to find a sense of authenticity, to be authentic.

Live your own life, not someone else’s. Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your stupid smart devices and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself. Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology. Don’t be a tool. There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts. Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

Notice I haven’t said anything in my revision of the oyster advice about writing a great essay or analyzing text or reading great literature. Don’t get me wrong, here. It’s not that I don’t think these things are monumentally important—but they are not the end—they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it–the true purpose of the last 13 years of your school experience: Learning to befriend your mind, learning to use your mind well will help you create a more peaceful world, will make you more empathetic and less selfish, will help you make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own passions, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you. As far as your future goes: treat your life as if it were a work of art and a gift to the world. Try to make it beautiful. And as Frederick Buechner has said, try to find “a place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Surprisingly, as clueless as I was in 1987, I was attempting to say some of these things in that silly video for an otherwise pretty good song. Find yourself a blue refrigerator, people. It will keep things cool.

With love, deep appreciation and gratitude for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2015.

 

(1) Grant Luecke was the student speaker at this graduation ceremony.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Self Reflection, Teaching