WHEN I was a kid, I loved the library. I loved its rows and rows of books with hard bindings and white, delicious pages.
I remember starting at the top left-hand side of the first wall of books in the children's section with the full intention of reading every one. Even though I read a lot, I was quickly daunted. There were simply too many books to read.
Those in the dwindling army of readers today no doubt share that frustration. But for me, one solution is to listen to, rather than read, books. When I spoke with Carolyn Hyatt, a librarian for non-print materials in the Baltimore County library system, she assured me that I am not alone. "Talking books," as she calls them, are wildly popular. Despite budget increases for purchasing tapes, there is still a "demand that we cannot fill."
I'm one of those running up the demand. But while listening to books and plays on tape thrills me, I also have a nagging feeling that I'm cheating. When I was in high school, some daringly irresponsible classmates would get Cliff or Monarch notes and do much better on the "Julius Caesar" test than I did after slogging through all the love and war of it.
Those editors of the cheat books really knew what a teacher wanted. But I never succumbed. Somehow it just wasn't right to miss out on the real thing.
I also fear that listening to books on tape is dangerously close to the same sleazy ethic that moved a major video chain recently to urge students to watch videos if they don't have time to read books. The commercial voice said, "It can take up to three months (or more!) to read "War and Peace," but if you rent it from [us] you can enjoy it in just three and a half hours."
It probably is both lack of time and lack of energy that drives readers to Cliff notes and videos, and talking books fit our lives precisely because we can do two things at once: "read" and drive, "read" and walk, "read" and clean the house, even "read" and run a marathon. Ms. Hyatt pointed out that most of the talking books she buys are abridged. And I guess in that sense they are a way of cheating, sort of like Reader's Digest condensed books. But there's more to it than that.
Listening is different from reading; I become the appreciative audience of a performance. I listen to authors (who often read their own work on tape) giving voice to regional characters and can't imagine experiencing their work any other way.
Bobbie Ann Mason reading "Spence and Lila" and Tom Bodett doing "The End of the Road" are two examples. Carolyn Chute brought her best-seller, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," to life by reading it with a thick New England accent. Other times I marvel at how masterfully actresses Lynn Redgrave and Meryl Streep and actor Ed Asner, all three talking book readers, can manipulate their voices to create different characters and how poignantly they weave moods with pace and inflection.
Listening to stories goes beyond performance, as anyone knows who grew up before television supplanted radio as our source of drama, comedy and adventure. Listening returns us to primal places -- to the clan huddling around the fire to recount the hunt, to families gathering to hear Father read from the Bible, to radio hounds thrilling to the adventures of the Shadow, to children snuggling with Mom before bed.
Listening attentively and imaginatively is a gift. Something this good can't be all bad.
Margaret O. Tipper writes from Lutherville.