A naked innocent in the ever-burgeoning jungle of audio-taped books, some time ago I launched an experiment, which now has progressed through three tiers. I have listened to: (1) an abridged version of a frothy entertainment novel, (2) an abridged version of a serious contemporary novel, and now (3) an unabridged recording of a major, complex novel.
All three presented surprises. The first two were reported on earlier on these pages. The third, just completed, was humbling, yielding the richest message.
The book was "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain. Published in 1884. Read by Norman Deitz, 1991, by Recorded Books Inc. Unabridged. Eight cassettes, 11.75 hours. I listened right through, without rewinding or repetition, during fairly long automobile trips.
What did I expect? Well, I was prepared to find that listening would amount to a superficial skimming of the surface, with lots missed and lots lost.
Enough years had passed since I last had read the book to let me believe that I was coming to it more or less as I would have if I had not read it at all. (Of course, everybody knows the essentials, whether they have read it or not.)
It is quite possible that listening might vary greatly from book to book. But this is what I found with the "Huckleberry Finn" tape: It was an enormously worthwhile and satisfying experience. I have to put it very close to the level of reading the book.
Why "Huckleberry Finn?"
Well, there's a lot of chatter about it these days. An excised early-draft chapter recently turned up in the New Yorker. Other portions of the original working manuscript are getting fresh attention. But I chose it because it is arguably the essential American novel.
In his "Notice" at the very beginning, Twain declared: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author."
It is thus that "Huckleberry Finn" is profoundly rich in a plot rising directly from moral motive.
In its wit there is more wisdom per paragraph than in the totality of the prattling of all the contemporary world's self-helpers and motivational tape-spinning tub-thumpers. Among its many great powers is its utter obliteration of the very concept of victim and thus victimization - the most toxic fad of today's most self-congratulatory and trivial social manipulators.
The book's genius, rather Samuel Clemens' genius, is to present with compelling integrity the basest human perfidiousness and in that scorn to love both man and mankind no less.
Ralph Ellison, one of the great critical voices of the century, defined but one of the book's foundation stones in calling it Twain's "great drama of interracial fraternity."
Ruminators are forever finding parallels between "Huckleberry Finn" and the works of Henry David Thoreau. That is no kindness to Thoreau, for the comparison exposes him as a pompous prig.
Just as the last cassette ended, I scribbled this note to myself:
A great and grand book, magic in its courage and imagination and rhythm and intensity and pace. Its interplaying innocence and wisdom, formality and spontaneity, youth and age, youthfulness and maturity, reality and fantasy, barely begin the list of the tunes it sings, the fugues it weaves.
So, I like the book. What about the experiment?
Though I found that listening to the entire unabridged tape delivered to me an experience of the same level of intensity as reading might, there are distinct differences, of course.
On the positive side, there is the voice of Norman Deitz, a fine actor with a superb command of American dialects, who gives an expert, convincing performance.
It's significant, I think, that I listened under circumstances in which it would have been impossible to be reading, while driving my car, alone. Thus the listening was a major bonus, redeeming what would have been wasted time. (In fairness to Thoreau, he did put that well: "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.")
On the negative, listening is not reading. Absorption doubtless varies greatly among people, as does recall. Several times, upon getting home, I found myself going to the printed page, to savor, to review, simply to celebrate certain distinct, definite glories. To do that with tapes, using rewind and fast-forward, would have been tedious, and entirely different.
And so, summing up about the entire experiment:
1. For light-entertainment fiction, a good abridged tape can be far preferable to reading the original, a swifter, more effective suspension of consciousness, a finer distraction, less fogged-in.
2. Listening to abridged tapes of serious fiction has virtually nothing to do with the book. Serious work does not condense.
3. With the reservation that it may not work the same with you and Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky as it did with me and Mark Twain, I found listening to a serious novel, unabridged, was surprisingly proximate to reading the book, though there is strong argument for having a printed copy on hand.
Take an unabridged cassette set to the beach, or into the hills. And don't burn books.