Dear Aunt Debbie,
I love the image of you, Bob, Lizzie, and Mona listening to all those books on tape in the car. Growing up car-less, I didn't have such regular audio book exposure; the one such event I remember distinctly was listening to Derek Jacobi read the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad on a long summer night rental car ride on a trip up to Nova Scotia. Amazing, but after four hours or so of spears going through men's eyeballs and out their spines, it got a little creepy.
I wasn't the big audio book listener in my family. That honor goes to my brother Michael, whose youthful lack of reading I've written about briefly before. I can remember Michael shutting himself in his room for hours, rearranging baseball cards in binders with plastic sleeves or finger-weaving long chains with potholder loops as he listened to Treasure Island and Peter Pan over and over. (I'm sensing a proper Robert Louis Stevenson blog post coming up in my near future.)
The main form of family listening that I began to enjoy in junior high school is not technically for children -- it's the extraordinary series Selected Shorts. The short stories in the series are performed by actors on the stage of Symphony Space, a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and broadcast in different configurations in hour-long programs on NPR stations. Symphony Space was our neighborhood theater, and a huge part of my childhood -- even before I got hooked on Selected Shorts, I had performed there with my elementary school chorus, and I'd seen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Raffi concerts on the same stage. We started going to Selected Shorts regularly on Wednesday nights in the spring when I was about 13. I had to pause in my attendance when I went away to college, but resumed when I returned to New York for graduate school and then afterwards, commuting from Brooklyn for every show until I had children and it became unfeasible. (My last in-person show was 3 days before Eleanor's due date.)
There is something magical in the communal listening that takes place in that theater. Over the years, the Selected Shorts audience has become one of the most attentive spaces I've ever been in. When you get a really good reader, you can feel the whole audience breathing together. You can hear it in the recordings -- the laughter at the funny stories is so genuine, and the intake of breath when there is fear or surprise is deep.
I've used Selected Shorts recordings in my classroom at various points in my career: Hattie Winston reading Toni Cade Bambara's "Gorilla, My Love," Linda Lavin reading Grace Paley's "The Loudest Voice," James Naughton's devastating reading of Michael Cunningham's "White Angel." As well as being personally excellent to listen to, they're a fantastic teaching tool.
Michael, the young non-reader, would slump down into his plush seat with his jacket wrapped around his face and appear to be sound asleep. Years later, however, when he dove into Dostoevsky and never looked back, he would mention particular stories, or moments in stories, and it became clear he'd been listening all along. Audio books allow for this kind of literacy by osmosis. It's a beautiful thing.