Monday, November 15, 2010

Reading Jane Austen While Driving

I used to not care for audio books. First of all, I have trouble remembering things that I hear. I don't retain details as well when I hear as when I read, write, or commit some kind of action. I think the proper term for it is that I am a kinesthetic learner, someone who "learns by doing" as opposed to seeing or hearing. Too bad I couldn't learn-by-doing cartwheels.

Sometimes, audio books stressed me out. Trying to focus on them while driving, when some kind of dramatic or upsetting scene was occurring, made me doubly anxious. The stress of the incident in the book compounded with driving + the stress of not retaining details and trying to follow just what stressful incident was exactly taking place.

But then my mother brought up the idea of listening to books while knitting. I have a lot of knitting and other stitchery crafts to complete as gifts for people. This sounded extremely relaxing as well as useful.

On the plane, I finished knitting a Christmas present. While I worked, I listening to music and thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could listen to my book club book right now, too?" Then I remembered Librivox. At this website, you can get free audio files of books in the public domain read by volunteers. What a wonderful idea!

So I downloaded Persuasion, the book I've been intending to read for awhile and now have to for book club. I loaded it onto my iPod and tried once again to read while driving; I put on Chapter 10 on my way to work.

"This is a Librivox recording," said a calm, even voice, a woman who sounded like a young adult with a nonspecific American accent. She continued, "All Librivox recordings are in the public domain." She then stated her name, Michelle Crandall, followed by the date of the recording and her location -- California. And then she began to read. Chapter 10 brought me to work, and it was delightful.

I had begun Chapter 10 on the plane back to Oregon, so some of what Michelle read to me was familiar. Some stood out more upon hearing than it had upon reading:

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

The walk in question takes place in November; my pleasure in my drive to work was to look at the tawny leaves and withered ... whatever Portland has in the way of hedges ... while hearing such lovely lines. Last week, someone told me, "Reading Jane Austen is good for the soul," and I agree. So is listening.

Chapter 10 ended, and on my way home from work, Chapter 11 began, but Michelle Crandall was not reading it to me! It was a new reader, someone whose accent sounded faintly like its origin was near my own. And when she introduced herself, she did not say where she was from! I almost missed Michelle Crandall. But Chapter 12 had a new reader, another with an unrecognizable American-sounding accent, who announced her location as China. The volunteers change throughout the book; I'm starting to like hearing where they're from and listening to the different accents. Some have British accents, which is a good way to hear Jane Austen. Although one announced her location as Waco, Texas, and I spent the entire chapter wondering if her British accent was fake.

I'm still missing pieces of the plot; I'll have to actually read the chapters in my book, although it will go much faster having "read" it already. I can't keep the characters straight, all the Captains - Harville, Benwick, Wentworth, and have I left any out? In the beginning of the novel, before I started listening to it, there are not one, not two, but three characters named Charles. Charles Musgrove, Charles Hayter, and Charles Musgrove Jr. What the hell, Jane Austen?

But I can forgive her. The very things that some readers might find maddening about Jane Austen, I've grown to love. One could argue that (like in reality TV shows) nothing really happens in her books. From what I can tell, the high dramatic point in the first 14 chapters of Persuasion is a girl falling down a hill. Nothing happens in Jane Austen's books that does not happen in normal, everyday life. It's her skill in noticing and presenting the details of everyday life that makes Jane Austen "good for the soul." It's piercing, maddening, sad, and funny. No character is left out from her critical perception -- she reveals all of their flaws, and yet in the same breath, forgives them. Her characters are flawed, but not villains.

She takes many words to get that point across. Under what seems like a lot of words describing nothing happening is what I consider a subtle humor, and it's not lost upon hearing instead of reading, even if I'm not always sure which character is speaking and how he or she relates to the heroine, Anne Elliott. Take this passage for example:

When they came to the steps, leading upwards from the beach, a gentleman at the same moment preparing to come down, politely drew back, and stopped to give them way. They ascended and passed him; and as they passed, Anne's face caught his eye, and he looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. It was evident that the gentleman, (completely a gentleman in manner) admired her exceedingly. Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance, - a glance of brightness, whcih seemed to say, "That man is struck with you, - and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliott again."

That's a lot of words to say...this is my modern English translation:

Some guy checked out Anne. She was looking pretty hot that day. Her ex noticed.

Perhaps the best lines, however, are the way Anne Elliott's father describes ugly people. Jane Austen and her characters use such elegant language to say such awful things, especially Sir Walter Elliott, who thinks he is one of the few attractive people left "amidst the wreck of the good looks of everybody else." What a great phrase! I want to start using that - "the wreck of good looks."

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