Through periods of illness I have recently taken to listening to books on tape. I know they’re not “on tape,” but I can’t help but use that phrase: bound by childhood, when my parents loaded in cassette after cassette of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series for our summer drives. Recently I was discussing the phenomenon of those books that one hears rather than reads with a poet who has been listening to books on his two-hour commute: he was listening to nonfiction, intending it as research, but found the experience was something less than learning. It’s a dream state, at least this is what I think, and said: a sea of names and dates that one can’t quite track, can’t consult an index for or reproduce the order and logic of, and through which whole arguments or epochs of history may metamorphose into an incongruous visual: the ’68 student uprisings to my neighbor’s children riding bikes in the driveway; the Yoo torture memos to a chickpea stew in the kitchen, which simmered while I paced the floor; and, most recently, the long and horrifying history of the bubonic plague in Europe in the fourteenth century to a train ride through the sunny farms and small towns of central Pennsylvania. Narrative can’t quite construct itself under these circumstances; analysis cannot be comprehended in its logical steps or citations but becomes an impression, a wave sweeping over, one more scene in the dream. This kind of experience—less than learning, but something else, what?—interests me, since in my illness my mind is similarly softened, blurred, something between awake and asleep, an alternate mode of its own that’s suited for dream (and thus TV) but not the structure and rigor of sentences.
This week I read most of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son out loud to my husband while he cooked dinner. I was feeling worn and left to my own devices would not have been able to sit and read a book or even listen to one, but reading aloud is also something else. The mind barely has to work; the voice takes over and sentences assemble themselves in full force aloud. Of course one knows this from the experience of reading one’s own writing aloud, from writing at all—the logic of sound is the greatest, the most mysterious force, the dream of language older than us all. (“The music precedes the meaning,” in Joseph Cardinale’s recent phrase.) Johnson’s stories became as though my own; in reading them it was as though the humor was mine, as though I’d had a hand in creating the vivid shocks that run throughout and the stories’ dark sudden wisdom. I was no longer passive witness, is I suppose all I mean; I had a stake, or was at stake. (Think of how it can be to read lesser works out loud; one’s voice begins to suggest mockery despite one’s intentions.) It took several stories before I felt I was doing his sentences anything like justice; I had to come to terms with how wonderfully different his voice was from mine. (And now: think of hearing recordings of Yeats, decades after first reading him—how formal and incantatory his poems are, in contrast to my more casual American version.) Through this ritual one is implicated, one’s voice and thus oneself is given over to the text. (When I go to Episcopal services, if I don’t think about it, I can murmur along all the correct responses to the liturgy; if I sit and try to think of them, they are lost.)
When I was young my father read many books to us—Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Jungle Book, and the strange and mesmerizing Amy’s Eyes by Richard Kennedy, which it seems may now be out of print and which I can only remember with a sort of fearful wonder and sadness. Books read aloud have a peculiar claim to memory, possess a haunting quality I would have thought was particular to childhood, the territory of memory we can’t re-enter as adults. But perhaps one can recreate something like that quality by reading aloud even now, by letting language take us over—not a return to childhood, but a spell that disrupts our usual logic. Jesus’ Son is a book I lived in more than read.