She had come to the library because her book group’s discussion of William Faulkner’s “Light in August” was coming up, and she was desperate. She didn’t need a copy of the novel — she had that — but every night as she settled in to read, Faulkner’s demanding stream-of-consciousness prose would blur before her eyes, and sleep would soon follow. She’d come hoping a book about “Light in August” would help, but I suggested something better: the audiobook.
A week later she returned to tell me she was rapt by Faulkner’s characters’ struggles with past shame and future longings, as clarified and dignified by the nuanced reading of veteran actor and narrator Will Patton. Buoyed along with Patton’s smooth rasp, her ears had appreciated Faulkner’s rough lyricism in a way her eyes hadn’t. She’d even persuaded some of her fellow book group members to try the audiobook. The actor’s painstaking and emotionally sensitive performance had unlocked this challenging text in a way that no explication, adaptation or summary ever could. She’d returned looking for a recording of Faulkner’s even more challenging “The Sound and the Fury,” which we had, narrated toward crisp clarity by Grover Gardner.
I first used audiobooks as a key to forbidding literature back in the mid-1990s when it was announced the James Joyce estate had authorized a full-length recording of his towering epic “Ulysses,” a book I’d noodled around in but never read. Irish actor Donal Donnelly’s inspired performance was nothing less than a revelation to me, refracting each momentary facet of this swiftly moving stream of life. The book recounts the course of a single day in the lives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus — June 16, 1904, or Bloomsday as it is more commonly known — in what turns out to be more than real time, as the story is over 40 hours in the telling. While I may have missed an allusion here or there, I was fully immersed in the sheer magnitude of Joyce’s unforgettable work. I still haven’t read the whole book with eyes, but I’ve listened to it twice now, and have also enjoyed Marcella Riordan’s more recent ravishing performance of the “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy.” “Ulysses” is now truly my own.
Some years later, I’d pledged with friends to read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” on two separate occasions, failing both times. At the time I was in training to walk a marathon, so the answer was obvious — kill two birds with one stone, and finish this literary marathon with the aid of Sean Pratt’s 56-hour narration. The prolific Pratt is a true road warrior of the audiobook world whose deft, intelligent narrations will be especially familiar to nonfiction listeners. A master of seasoning the driest minutiae with plenty of expressive sauce, he was entirely up to the challenge presented by Wallace’s cerebral, endlessly digressive epic. (Pratt even narrated a separate recording of the novel’s footnotes, running to eight hours!) I won’t say this audiobook made me a lifelong Wallace fan, but thanks to Pratt I kept to my training schedule and crossed the book’s finish line with a few blisters and plenty of droll chuckles along the way.
These experiences were recalled to me this past Bloomsday, when Naxos Audiobooks released the first ever unabridged recording of James Joyce’s most flabbergasting work of all, “Finnegans Wake,” narrated with near miraculous skill by Dublin actors Riordan and Barry McGovern. Although I own both paperback and hardcover editions, I’d long ago given up any hope of actually reading this most perplexing 20th-century literary monument from cover to cover. Written in a painstakingly invented language of Joyce’s own that seems only casually related to English, “Finnegans Wake” appears at first glance to be largely gibberish. Yet my previous audio immersions in Joyce assured me that the text my eyes boggled at, my ears could relish.
It isn’t easy to describe the experience of listening to all 29 hours of “Finnegans Wake”; among the words that come to mind: staggering, intoxicating, joyful and hilarious. Although it is customary to describe the book as “not for everyone,” this astonishing, inspired narration should swell the ranks of those who can now experience the book firsthand. I plan to listen again with book in hand, but also use it as occasional musical accompaniment to life.
And with Joyce in the rear view, I can go off in search of one last white whale. No, not “Moby Dick”: Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”! All 150 hours of it.