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The Joy of Not Reading

June 22, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Should the Los Angeles Times Book Review review audiocassettes?

By no means! says the voice of responsibility. Audiocassettes are not books. Let someone else review them. True, audiocassettes are often derived from books, but this is not always so. Many inspirational cassettes--whether the inspiration comes from God or from Lee Iacocca--contain material that has never existed as ink on paper. When audiocassette texts do come from books, they come, often enough, in severely abridged form with little or no indication to the critical reader of what may have been left out. Finally, and more seriously, when unabridged texts are published, they are typically the texts of books that have already gone through both a hardcover and a paperback edition. The audiocassette as a third-stage "reprint" may be a useful product, but does it require a third review?

At best, it would seem, such a third-stage review might end up covering production and performance only: the quality of the sound, the eloquence of the reader, the packaging and program notes, etc. An audiocassette reviewed in this way would be like a play reviewed in revival. And though the review of such a revival might seem legitimate enough in principle, there would be a crucial difference in practice, for the number of important and completely new books in Southern California bookstores vastly exceeds the number of dramatic premieres. It is not likely that a Southern California drama critic will have to pass over an important new play because he has covered a notable revival. Unfortunately, a limitation of just this sort does attend the reviewing of audiocassettes. For every audiocassette "reprint" reviewed, some worthy new book must go unreviewed.

Responsibility speaks well, but against its voice is heard, as ever, the voice of hedonism.

When audiocassettes began arriving at The Book Review last year, I began listening to them, enjoyed them shamelessly, and am now all but addicted to them. It is not misery alone that loves company: Indulgence does, too. Can there be no middle course between our duty to new authors and the pleasure of this listening?

Audiocassette producers tell me that I am like many listeners in my preference for two kinds of recorded work: the classic or near-classic that I somehow never got around to reading, and the mere entertainment to which I would never have begrudged time from my "real" reading but on which I am willing to waste the already wasted time spent commuting and exercising. As the VCR has led the boom in videocassettes, so have the Walkman and the automobile tape deck led the boom in audiocassettes.

The Los Angeles private car compares extremely well to the bus, train and subway that serve commuters more conspicuously in other cities. The defenders of mass transit in those places admit its defects and dangers but inevitably add, "At least you can read." Thanks to the audiocassette, Angelenos now have a retort: "True, I can't read, but I can be read to ."

Even for the youngest of readers, reading is a more rapid, active, acquisitive, impatient process than being read to. Reading silently, you can skip. You can double back and leap forward. You can seize what suits your purposes (never mind the author's) and discard the rest. You can skim as you please. You can stop cold, close the book and think. These freedoms are, of course, the joys of silent reading. But hearing a work read aloud in its slow, inescapable, word-for-word completeness is another kind of joy. A passive pleasure? Say rather: receptive, unhurried, calm, aware.

Needless to say, not all prose reads equally well aloud. I recently listened to half a cassette's worth of Jacqueline Susann's "Once Is Not Enough" and found it more than enough. Susann may have known how to tell a story, but enjoying her work must require not listening too closely to her flat and tuneless sentences. By contrast, Joseph Wambaugh's "Lines and Shadows" (Brilliance Corporation) achieves a kind of perfect pitch in the aggressive, slightly embittered interpretation given it by reader Jerry Bozeman; in the most exciting scenes, Bozeman reads at amazing speed but never drops a syllable or confuses any of the several characters he must impersonate. Dorothy Parker's "Big Blonde" (Listen for Pleasure)--dated at one or two points, feminist-prophetic at several others--is acid elegance in Lauren Bacall's throaty purr.

Among all the audiocassettes I have heard lately, however, nothing has lingered longer in the mind than "MS Found in a Bottle," one of several stories read by Paul Scofield on Dove Audio's "The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe."

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