The radio is no longer listenable. It’s sad to see a medium with so much promise squandered, surrendered to children and fanatics. As a teenager I loved listening with an ear plug late at night. The lights were out and everyone slept. That was the age of “underground radio.” That’s how I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing “Red House.” Even talk shows, like freak shows, seemed interesting. John Birchers, UFO nuts, JFK conspiracy theorists – but also a guy, late at night, from a city I no longer remember, talking at length about Sherwood Anderson. Of course, everything then was new. I hadn’t yet sorted out the gifts from the cranks. I haven’t listened to AM in half a century.
We have no radio in the house now, a change from the days when my mother turned on the kitchen set first thing in the morning and listened to Ed Fisher on WJW, and polkas on Sunday mornings. Radio was a comfort, a surrogate neighbor, an audio blog with a soundtrack. In the car, I now listen strictly to CDs. Most of my drives are brief – eleven miles to work, eleven back – but long enough for a couple of tracks, usually jazz, Jack Teagarden or Lester Young. Being in a car, shielded from wind and street noise, revives some of the late-night radio intimacy I knew as a kid. I’ve never liked music as background. I like to listen.
Verlyn Klinkenborg comes up with another option, one I’ve never tried. In More Scenes from the Rural Life (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013), he describes a cross-country drive he and his wife took from upstate New York to California. They listened to a recording of Middlemarch cover to cover, so too speak: “It so happens that America is as wide as Middlemarch is long, at seventy mph along the Southern route.” This makes sense. Eliot’s novel is as expansive and intimate as the country. Most of my drives are too short for so hefty a novel. Klinkenborg notes, correctly:
“A novel is really a temporal creation. It’s as much about the ways in which time passes in the story and in the reader’s awareness of the story as it is about anything else. If you sat in a room and read Middlemarch or listened to it being read, you’d become very aware of the time it took. But for us the novel became a spatial creation. It was as if we were driving along a pavement of Eliot’s sentences laid end to end across the country, the ink as black as asphalt.”
Klinkenborg had read Middlemarch several times before listening to the recording. I wonder how this changed his experience. Reading a book a second or third time is a qualitatively different experience from the first time – not that Middlemarch is driven by suspense. For my purposes, I won’t be listening to Daniel Deronda in the car anytime soon. But I might try something briefer – Chekhov’s stories, Liebling’s essays. Klinkenborg writes:
“The human mind has a natural propensity to give in to the story at hand.”
[Go here to read the original newspaper version of Klinkenborg's story. The piece collected in More Scenes from the Rural Life is revised, expanded and improved.]