Learning to Listen at the Library

by Bill Peak

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with this column that I love to read. And when I say I love to read, I'm not just talking about the mental process of working one's way, word by word, through a text; I love the physical act of reading as well. To pick up a new book, feel its heft, the weight of all that lies before you, to open it, cast your eyes over that first, preemptive paragraph ... now that's what I call living.

So you can see why, for years now, as I have checked audio books out (by the hundreds), checked them back in again (by the hundreds), listened to patrons debate the relative merits of the people employed to read these works, watched them anguish over their selections, lust after missing titles, I have found myself wondering again and again: Just what is the appeal? Sure, I understand that most people, having to spend too much time in automobiles, use books on CD to turn that peculiar environment into something a little more pleasant, a place where they can learn some French maybe or listen to the latest Donna Leon novel, but, still ...

For me, driving has always been about music. I turned seventeen the year of the Tet Offensive--for members of my generation, cars were invented to give us a place where we could listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” without being told to turn the volume down. Of course my tastes have changed since then, but I still can't keep my hands off the library's collection of compact disks. Give me a copy of Glenn Gould's “Art of the Fugue” or Miles Davis's “Kinda Blue,” and my twenty-minute drive home turns into a sublime carriage ride through something resembling Van Gogh's starry, starry night.

But all of this may have changed the other day when, while returning some books on CD to the stacks, I found myself shelving a copy of “Beowulf,” translated and read by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Now you have to understand, I was a teenager when I first read “Beowulf,” and the idea that it had been composed during the Dark Ages--that I could actually read the same stories that had once thrilled Anglo-Saxon warriors--thrilled me. It still does. But more than anything, I had always wanted to experience the poem as they had--not read quietly to oneself, but recited aloud. And now here was a Nobel laureate offering to give me a reading in the privacy of my own car!

And so it was that, for the next several nights, I returned home not across the wintry fields of Talbot County but, rather, over the blasted moors of Denmark, lonely farmhouses looming up out of the darkness like Hrothgar's hall, Heaney's rough brogue filling my mind with images of Grendel “haunting the marches, marauding round the heath/and the desolate fens ...” tearing men limb from limb, sucking at their bones.

And when I'd got home and locked all the doors, I swore I'd never listen to another book on CD as long as I lived.

But of course I have. I may well be addicted. Currently, Geoffrey Chaucer is filling my nights with his “Canterbury Tales,” though Edmund Spenser's “Faerie Queen” sits impatiently on the seat beside me, awaiting the next dance. And all of it checked out free of charge from that great storehouse of spoken English: the Talbot County Free Library.