The COVID-19 crisis has led me to rethink a lot that I’ve taken for granted. One of the saving graces helping to get me through long days of remote teaching and evenings of doom-scrolling was the opportunity to take long walks. In the mornings, I walked before work, to wake up; in the evenings, I walked to shake off the day’s sitting and to fend off the Zoomfleisch. I walked the streets and alleys, paths and trails of my town, nodding at other walkers and keeping my six-feet away.
Some days I wanted to walk silently, to think something through, to meditate, or to write something in my head. Other days I had an audiobook to listen to. I had upgraded my phone and phone service and invested in some decent earbuds, so I was ready. At first, I didn’t think about it too much. It was a way of keeping my mind occupied while my legs worked. I started with thrillers downloaded through my local library, a genre that provided some extra cardio.
Toward the middle of the summer, I spotted the unabridged audiobook of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the library’s available books queue. I had read it a couple of times before and seen the film versions, both the 1956 one and the 1984 version (with Richard Burton as O’Brien). I was planning to refer to Newspeak and the novel in fall classes, so I clicked “checkout.”
For the next eleven walking hours, I had the new experience of having a familiar book read to me. It was, to mix a metaphor, eye-opening. It wasn’t just the Simon Prebble’s English accent and Orwell’s Briticisms. Those were fun for me as a linguist, but the audiobook gave me the opportunity to experience something familiar in a whole new way.
Audiobooks are a slower experience than print books or ebooks. By my estimation, audiobooks last twice as long. That leaves more time to reflect while listening, sometimes randomly (I wonder if Victory Gin is a real thing?) and sometimes more critically (Orwell’s sexism and misogyny stand out and the long reading of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism does not hold up). Small details stick with me (the glass paperweight, the bugs in the lovers’ bed). When rats appear, I see the foreshadowing of Winston’s fate, and the ubiquitous telescreens bring to mind all the Zoom meetings I’ve been in.
Listening to Nineteen Eighty-Four gave me a new perspective on that book and opened up a new way to read and reread. As I’ve listened to other audiobooks since, I found myself thinking about what the narrator chooses to emphasize. Is there something in their tone that suggests we’ll be seeing more of a character? Does the narrator want you to like the protagonist or not?
Matters of craft stand out in new ways as well. The slower pace allows you to anticipate wording that comes next and you notice things you might otherwise skip over in print: a writer who uses “paws” rather than “hooves” or the number of times someone is referred to as having glasses with square frames.
Listening also sharpens your senses. You have time to smell the Pears Soap or chicory coffee, to taste the meatloaf, to feel the speed of the van on the icy road. And in audiobooks, there is no visual clue that you are at the end of a chapter. In the pause that suddenly arrives, you have a moment to think why it ended on precisely that note.
Now I find myself making a list of books to reread as audiobooks and of new books that I might listen to as well as read. And I find that I am walking more than ever.
Featured image by Joseolgon