I mentioned in yesterday’s festival calendar post that a lot of things in my life–some little, some big–have changed significantly this past year. One of the little things, which has had a surprisingly big impact on our lives, is that we haven’t been watching movies, something we used to do pretty frequently. Originally we stopped because we thought our laptop screen was broken and didn’t have another devise to play movies with; we later discovered that the screen wasn’t as bad as we had thought, but we still haven’t resumed our movie watching, and we even canceled our Netflix subscription. Why? We’ve discovered the joys of reading aloud and listening to audio books.
We discovered this quite by accident. My partner was getting a book of her own ready for release (a wonderful, enchanting book of short stories based on and set in the fabulously eccentric city we call home, Eugene Oregon, which I will of course plug here when it’s available) and I suggested she read the stories out loud, to prepare for promoting it locally. (An endeavor that may well end up requiring her to read in public at local book stores.) She was reluctant because she had no public speaking experience (and didn’t really want any), but at least I persuaded her to try it. To our surprise, our dog, who was on “crate rest” at time recuperating from a slipped disk, began listening raptly whenever she read, so in an effort to keep him entertained (he was an extremely bored emo-dog during his confinement) we graduated to juvenile adventure novels. Who would have guessed our dog would love being read to? Just like a child, he settled down to listen whenever she began reading–although he definitely had his favorite stories (usually anything an 8-10 year old boy would have loved). As for me, I discovered that it is extremely pleasant to spin while being read to.
Time passed, the dog was released from “crate rest,” and Jo decided she wanted to continue to listen to stories but would prefer to be able to knit at the same time. Enter audiobooks. Earlier in the year we had tried listening to Ariana Franklin‘s Mistress of the Art of Death, a murder mystery set during the reign of Henry II of England, on audiobook, but then we became sidetracked and stopped somewhere in the middle. So we started with that one, picking up where we had left off and rapidly finishing it. I got lots of spinning done, Jo got lots of knitting done, and we were entertained while doing it. We progressed to the second book, A Serpent’s Tale, which we sailed through in little more than a weekend. We’re about to start on the next book in the series.
And I’ve made an important realization, which sounds obvious but didn’t immediately occur to me: listening to books read aloud is intrinsically different both from watching movies or TV (and not just because the entirety of the book is still there, not abridged by a director’s vision or budget constraints) and from reading a book silently to yourself. It’s different because it’s the old way of doing things, when people gathered in the meadhall or just around the fire in the evenings to listen to a bard, skald, or other flavor of local storyteller. Stories were a social activity back then, a way of connecting with the community, of sharing experiences if even just through a tale. They also did not preclude multi-tasking, as solitary reading and visual entertainment often do, which was a good thing because in those days most people needed to multi-task! Listening to stories while spinning–or knitting, or what-have-you–links us with all of the people who have gathered to listen to stories over the past several thousand years, and beyond. This is one of the oldest traditions there is, with links to just about every culture the world has ever known. It is very close to being a universal human experience–or was, at one time, and is now mostly forgotten, in favor of more popular and readily available sources of entertainment.
But I’m very glad it’s making a comeback. Listening to stories opens up the imagination in ways that watching a movie cannot; it takes the experience of reading a book and makes it more convenient for those of us who create art with our hands. This is a very good thing.