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When I recall life-long friends, many have covers and pages. These book friends are unique – never in a bad mood, never short of time or money. I smile recalling favorite titles, and characters who embedded into my life at crucial moments. Always available, perhaps formal, lighthearted or funny – books spoke to me, and I answered. Books as windows let me peek. And when sad, the consolation I received from a familiar book was silent comfort.
In the last three years, books have actually taken on their own voices. Companions for each driving trip have been audio books. With them, I have gained new access to the cadence and power of books. When Nora Ephron died recently, it was a special sorrow. On a trip to Chicago, via the audio she read of her work, she shared her astute insights about her body, her friendships, with me. Just the two of us in the car, she made me laugh out loud.
What is so different about a book on a road trip? The car is a perfect place for listening, and on the highway there are few distractions. A great story increases the appeal of getting back in the car again, each day of a long road trip. While listening to David McCullough’s “John Adams” over the miles, I marveled at the rivalries between Jefferson and Adams. Each day got me closer to Miami, and deeper into the eighteenth century. When both men reached their ends on July 4, 1826, I drove far past my destination to listen. When the narrator who was my companion through the journey reached “The End,” I sighed.
“Caleb’s Crossing,” by Geraldine Brooks, gave me a narrator with whom I often disagreed, but who was never dull. Calvin Trillin’s tribute to his late wife, in “About Alice,” a tender series of short pieces he’d written during her lifetime, included his additional reflections since her death. Although I felt I knew Alice from his previous descriptions, I felt closer to both of them because of the sound of his voice, as he spoke of her life and death.
Learning about a writer’s style can sound dull, but when you are alone in a car with Ernest Hemingway, as I was with “The Sun Also Rises,” style is palpable. Without listening to “The Paris Wife” (a novel by Paula McLain) I never would have returned to Hemingway, and would have missed his unadorned, plot-driven prose. How different he was from Charles Dickens, who made my trip to/from New York City the least boring ever, with “Great Expectations.”
An inevitable reality of listening to books is the sudden shock that you have gone many miles, and your mind has wandered far from the book. In preparation for a recent trip to Ireland, I got the 2011 recorded audio version of “Ulysses,” by James Joyce. I braved my way through the book decades ago, but wanted to return to Leopold Bloom’s Dublin before getting off the plane. I did not succeed. Two false starts; even though the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) used multiple actors to make the book a fascinating auditory collage, I got lost. Only upon returning from Dublin, starting the book for the third time, did I connect to Joyce’s many subtle references, finally appreciating and finishing the book.
Even with this potential of failure, the greater opportunity for making friends with a new book means I will never be alone when I drive.