January 4, 2005

The ones with moving pictures are totally cool, too . . .


“A lifelong love of literature is a good thing, even if it is experienced by other means than a solitary encounter with the printed page,” notes the pseudonymous English professor Thomas H. Benton in a commentary for The Chronicle of Higher Education, before going on to explain that “I am certain that my interest in literature was stimulated not so much by reading books myself as by listening to recordings of other people reading them”—in particular, the phonograph records he found in the local library. Among his favorites: “Basil Rathbone’s readings of Poe and Hawthorne . . . The Hobbit performed by Nicol Williamson . . . the tragedies of Shakespeare with actors like Paul Scofield and Claire Bloom . . . Anthony Quayle reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” In fact, Benton has continued listening to recorded books daily, to the point where, “I go to sleep every night with the soothing sounds of a recorded book.” However, he notes a sort of stigma attached to “books on tape.” “I never told any of my professors that I ‘read’ some of their assignments by listening to them on the subway. It seemed like cheating — almost the equivalent of reading Cliff’s Notes instead of the real book. Even today, I keep my large collection of recorded books hidden in a closet. I wonder how many professors of my generation share these experiences.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.