An Unconventional Review of The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
How I Plan to Read More Books This Year (and Why I Love My Public Library)
Apart from the books that my parents and teachers read aloud to me when I was very young, all of my reading has been done in the same old way: sitting in a chair with a book or electronic device in my hands, seeing and interpreting the words on a page or screen in front of me. There was one memorable summer when I read the entire unabridged, trade paperback version of Stephen King’s The Stand, all 1,150 heavy pages of it resting on my lap, while reclining on a chaise lounge on the lower deck of my parents’ house—which leads me to reflect that the place in which I read a book often becomes part of the experience.
I’m always on the lookout for a good book, and always wondering how I’ll ever find the time to read all the good books I want to read. If only I could read while doing other things…
I spend 80-100 minutes in my car most weekdays, driving to and from my daughter’s school and my job. As I mentioned in a previous blog, there is no auxiliary port and no Bluetooth in my old car, so my entertainment options while driving are limited to CDs or radio, or talking or singing. I’m alone at least 60% of that time, and as much as I enjoy talking to myself and belting out certain songs, I’m usually dazed, grumpy, and silent behind the wheel. Hey, Captain Obvious recently said to me, why don’t you utilize all your boring driving time to listen to audiobooks?
Even if listening to an audiobook is not “really” reading, it’s gotta be close, I thought. Even if it’s like cheating on an English assignment somehow, it could be a way to “read” at least an hour more a day. No one else will ever know or care that I didn’t see the author’s words and punctuation with my eyes. But, would listening to an audiobook feel the same as reading with my eyes? Captain Obvious couldn’t tell me, so I vowed to find out for myself.
For my very first audiobook experience, I chose The History of Love, a novel by Nicole Krauss. Why that book in particular? Because whenever someone says “this is my favorite book,” I take notice. A blogger acquaintance recently singled out that book, and I’d never heard of it, so, intrigued, I checked out the audiobook version from the library. A few days after I started listening to it, I also put the paperback version of The History of Love on hold at my library, because it soon became apparent that I was hearing a remarkable story, and the English scholar and writer in me wanted to see what it looked like on paper.
The first seven CDs were great. I loved the opening narrator, both the voice actor and the character he portrayed: the sad, funny, brutally honest old Polish man with the Yiddish accent, Leo Gursky. I didn’t care for the voice of Alma, the main female narrator, nearly as much, probably because of the way she added a faint “h” sound to the beginning of words like “what” and “where”—I could hear her trying too hard to pronounce each word clearly—but I liked her character’s observations. I listened intently to “Leo” and “Alma” while doing my usual school-errands-work driving—and so did my daughter, when she was in the car with me; the audiobook had a soothing effect on both of us.
One CD was the equivalent of roughly 30 pages, and I averaged a full CD or more per day. Then tragedy struck: the eighth CD in the set was badly scratched and my car’s CD player couldn’t read it, which was infuriating, because I was on the brink of a key revelation in the narrative. (I had flashbacks to all those scratched, useless children’s DVDs my kids had checked out from the library over the years; I’d foolishly believed that adults would take better care of the audiobook CDs they borrowed—HA!) I went out of my way to get another copy of The History of Love audiobook from a different library, because I was still waiting for the paperback version I’d put on hold to become available, and I was dying to know what happened next. (I’m WAY too cheap—thrifty—to spend money on an electronic copy of a book I’d already nearly finished reading; that was never an option for me, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just go home and buy/download the e-book. Maybe the e-book was available from my library, you say? Shut up, Smartypants; hindsight is 20/20. I was lost in my book and wasn’t thinking rationally at the time.)
Thankfully, the replacement CDs were not scratched, and I listened, mesmerized, as I drove home. I didn’t want to stop listening. I contemplated driving around aimlessly until I’d finished the last chapter, even as the fussy environmentalist within me griped, You’d burn fossil fuels unnecessarily, just to keep on listening to this achingly beautiful audiobook in your car? Shame on you! As soon as I pulled into my garage, I checked my phone and discovered that the paperback version of The History of Love was now, finally, ready to pick up at my local library. Overjoyed, I immediately backed out and drove a few more miles to get the book. Miss Fussy Environmentalist was bitching and moaning the whole time, but I couldn’t hear her because I was completely enthralled by the intersecting stories of Leo and Alma. My car had become a snug, peaceful refuge, where I was simultaneously inside and outside the soul-stirring prose pouring into my ears. I’d started listening to the ninth and final CD by the time I got home.
What a relief, to know that as soon as I turned off my car and stopped listening, I could rush into my living room and sit down and read the remainder of the book on paper—and that’s exactly what I did. I re-read a couple of earlier scenes, pleased to discover that the words looked and “felt” just as I’d sensed them while listening to the audiobook. Then I found the place where I’d left off on the CD, and read for another forty minutes straight (the voice in my head did not over-pronounce all of Alma’s words, but I kept dear old Leo’s voice the same).
After experiencing The History of Love in both audiobook and traditional paperback form, I can honestly say that listening to a novel is, for me, almost exactly like reading it. When I flipped through the paper pages, keen on spotting little things that couldn’t possibly be reproduced by voice actors, I did find a few diagrams and Hebrew symbols in sections of Alma’s journal and also noticed that her younger brother’s journal was written without a lot of standard punctuation, in keeping with his age and personality. I’m glad I checked out the written version of the book, because I appreciate all those details and they do add to the reader’s overall experience.
I think I can safely say, though, that most books, unless they rely heavily on illustrations and photographs or experimental punctuation and formatting, won’t lose too much in the transformation from written to spoken word. Good voice actors can make the words come alive in a way that we may not be able to reproduce on our own while reading silently to ourselves. Then again, if I find a certain voice irritating, I may not fully appreciate the author’s original words.
I look forward to listening to more audiobooks in my car, both fiction and nonfiction. What other routine chores might be improved with a good audiobook: Fixing dinner? Sorting laundry? Working out at the gym?
Now that I’m no longer prejudiced against “reading with my ears,” a whole new world has suddenly opened up to me. What fabulous, multitasking beings we are, with so many fail-safes built in to keep us from missing out on the vast world around us! That being said, it is harder for me to make sense of unfamiliar words I’m hearing, versus unfamiliar words I’m seeing: if I see it, at least I know exactly what to look up in the dictionary; if I’m merely hearing it, I might not even know how to spell it.
I personally wouldn’t try to listen to an audiobook containing tons of highly technical, medical or scientific information, or lots of antiquated or foreign words. But I can see the benefit of reading difficult text on the page first, and then listening to it for further elucidation—poetry written two centuries ago, for example, or a Shakespearean play (but, according to my favorite English professor in school, Prof. Swann, one should always, always, always WATCH Shakespeare’s plays being performed to understand them best, and I’m sure she’s right).
For many people with learning disabilities, listening to books might be the easiest way to digest them. Anyone who says that listening to a book doesn’t count as “real” reading is just plain wrong, in my humble opinion. I can’t believe I was ever so mistaken, and I am glad to have discovered the truth for myself at age forty. Rediscovered the truth, I should say, because the first book I ever read was one that my parents read aloud to me. I knew and loved the words with my ears before I ever knew and loved the words with my eyes. And the experience of sitting on my mom or dad’s lap while reading was surely just as memorable as the story. That feeling of connection and love is one of the reasons why I became such an avid reader, and why I’ve read so many books with my own kids.
The depth of feeling behind the words is what resonates with us, whether we’re reading the words on a page or hearing them, so it shouldn’t matter how the words enter our consciousness.
Listening to The History of Love was a wonderful revelation. I look back on the last week and feel myself in my car on the familiar route to my daughter’s school, but also in war-torn Poland in 1941, hiding from Nazis…I’m in my car, passing my nephew’s high school, but also lying on the floor of Alma’s boyfriend’s bedroom, with sand in my swimsuit…Sitting in my recliner in my living room, turning the last page of the soft paperback copy of The History of Love in my hands, I’m also on a bench in New York City, tears in my eyes.
Reading is truly a multisensory experience. Far from being a poor substitute for “real reading,” audiobooks are simply one more way to absorb the language of great writers, and a potentially easy way to increase the number of books we’re able to read. Busy bookworms can “read” with their ears whenever their eyes are engaged in other mundane tasks.
“Reading” an audiobook while driving is so much more relaxing and fulfilling than anything I used to do while driving alone. I’ll probably try to get my hands on the paper or e-book format of any book I listen to, just so I can easily switch between listening and reading with my eyes.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is an excellent novel, a deeply moving story of love and survival, and I highly recommend it. With so many good books out there to choose from, in so many different formats, book lovers really have no excuse not to read every single day. And you can probably find just about any book, in whatever format you prefer, at your local library. Audiobook CD, e-audiobook, e-book, good old ink and paper, whichever you prefer: put books on hold at your library for free!
Read and be happy.