A skeptic for years, I am a complete and total convert to recorded books. I can't tell you how many more books, sometimes very good books, I've been able to read in the past three years or four years just by hooking on some earbuds when I run. I started with cassette tapes and CDs from the library, but these were clunky and not terribly portable. I discovered the joys of Audible.com when my wife gave me an iPod Shuffle a few Christmases ago. Finally, I could take a book anywhere. What have I read by listening in recent years? A lot of forgotten classics and some new ones. A short list: Sula by Toni Morrison, The March by E.L. Doctorow, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter, Mornings on Horseback and John Adams by David McCullough, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, A Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, When You are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. And this does not begin to count the hundreds of stories I've listened to on NPR's Selected Shorts podcasts and The New Yorker's monthly fiction podcasts. And just with an hour each day on a treadmill. Or a longer run on Saturdays when I'm training for a marathon. I shudder to think of how much good literature I would have not experienced in recent years had I simply stared at a television screen in the gym or at passing cars on the road.
Recently, the value of Audible.com hit home as sharply as ever when, over the course of a couple weeks, I listened to Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. The novel, of course, is no news to anyone. It only won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. With this novel and his earlier "biopic" Dancer (a novel about the life of Rudolf Nureyev), McCann may be sprinting to the top of my list of favorite contemporary writers. As a child of the 70s (though I was born in the 60s) what I admire about both books is how he brings alive the physical details, the cultural pulse, the social entropy of that oft overlooked decade. And Spin is simply a tour de force, with so many competing points of view, gender identifications, nationalities, races, age groups, and social classes convincingly presented in either first person or third peson limited that it awes the writerly imagination. Drawing on these many different perspectives, McCann recreates a day in the summer of 1974 when an acrobat famously walked across a tightrope stretched between the the twin towers in New York. And in doing so he recreates an era, a city, a country. Read it or listen to it. Either way it will be an awesome pleasure. I'm glad I didn't miss out.