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Reading for the Grind

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Reading for the Grind
I am not, thankfully, a commuter of much distance. Every day I drive to and from (about 20 minutes each way, give or take back ups on Rosedale Road) Hopewell to Princeton proper for work, and even on the weekends find myself “commuting” into town. But if I was a real commuter, I’d be a Book on Tapes person.
I discovered my first book on tape (now CD) while driving every other weekend or so to sustain a long distance relationship. Although the relationship fizzled, my fondness for books on tape remains.
My first “book drive” featured Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. While not the most upbeat of reads for the haul up 287, the memoir is a gripping, vivid sharing of her experiencing the sudden death of her husband and then loss of her daughter in the span of a few short months. (Little did I know then that I would face a similar perfect storm with the oddly eerie timing of my father’s brief bout with Alzheimer’s (a year from diagnosis to death) and my mother’s sudden fight with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The trek was miraculously shortened by the narrator’s calm, Didionesque voice, walking me through her daydream of a year of funerals and hospitals and intervening friends and family. The key to a good book on tape, I would soon discover, is narration, just like the narrator of a great movie. (Shawshank Redemption is the gold standard here, with Morgan Freeman’s lilting voice walking us from horror to hope, and Meryl Streep’s Danish reminiscence in Out of Africa.)
My next road trip, down south to see my family, was appropriately accompanied by March by Geraldine Brooks, whose narrator’s wandering from one battle to another of the Civil War mirrored our passing of the now historic battlefields in Virginia and North Carolina along the way to Charleston, South Carolina. (For those who like the Civil War meets real (weird) life approach, I highly recommend one of the quirkiest documentaries ever made, Sherman’s March).
My most recent drive/read was accompanied by Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had read the first part of the novel (who hasn’t?) before hearing it on tape, but the multi-accented narrator managed to bring the suspenseful story to life despite strange attempts at cockney women accents (belonging to the tattooed girl).
So here’s the big question – Is it better to be seen or heard? My vote is read if you can, but listening to fiction or nonfiction can make an unbearable drive pass by quickly (even on the dreadful 95 corridor). Thrillers and mysteries are made for easy listening, as long as they are well written. (Bad writing sounds even worse on tape). Sex scenes are a little hard to take (note to mothers with children on board – know what you are listening to!) and multiple genders can be a challenge for some narrators. But for the most part, if the story and the writing are top notch, even slightly botched narration can be ignored if one can find the writer’s voice beneath.

Moderated by Wendell Collins.

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