By Way of the Ear

May 17, 2009 § 2 Comments


(This is not another post about the cat. I got lazy about finding just the right picture.)

I resisted reading Verlyn Kinkenborg’s New York Times piece on reading aloud* because I thought it referred to the successful complaint from publishers that the Kindle’s computer-generated voice infringed on their audio rights. This is an argument that makes no sense, since my laptop can read aloud to me (I discourage it). The Kindle may sound better, but the real threat, in the publishers’ tiny minds, is that Jeff Bezos will soon make the Kindle sound much better, nearly human, maybe better than human, at which point audio book sales will fall off a cliff.

This won’t be soon. Until the New York Times pointed it out to Bezos, The Kindle was pronouncing ‘Barack Obama’ as ‘Black Alabama’.

Still, I’m the last person to pooh-pooh possible advances in this field. I’m hoping for the perfect robot pal to gently usher me through old age, not only doing the chores and chatting with me, not only reading me to sleep in my mother’s voice—the voice she had when she was 35, I mean, which exists nowhere but memory—but doing so without rancor, without muttering under its breath when I repeat myself (knowing I’m repeating myself, as the elderly generally do: they don’t care).

When that great leap forward has been made, new computers will come equipped with the technology and the publishers’ point will be moot. It was a silly waste of money to fight Bezos on this, although I think he caved pretty quickly. He needs publishers to feed the Kindle.

Back to Klinkenborg. He’s waxing nostalgic for the days when adults read aloud, not only to children but each other. When it was a drawing room activity, as in Jane Austen’s day. He’s right that it’s an educative, emotional, sometimes erotic experience to read something in front of even a small audience (this doesn’t include reading aloud instructions on how to put together a piece of furniture while your husband sweats and swears).

“Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…”

He’s restating Charles Olson’s famous dictum: poetry comes from,  “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”

When I was young, I knew a few people who liked to have poetry read aloud after dinner. Mainly it was one family—my friend Caitlin’s family—but I came across it on a couple of other occasions and instigated it myself a few times. In the right company, it’s the best way to end a good dinner.

Those dinners at Caitlin’s grandparents’ farm: steak with béarnaise sauce and several bottles of red wine, pretty women in long dresses, Julian with his cultured Argentinean accent nobody could understand though it was easier to pretend when you were drunk and so was he, summer in the country by a river.

I always blushed when it was my turn to read. I’d try to get someone to dim the lights, never admitting why. Mood and atmosphere mattered to them, so it was usually possible. “Is there enough light for you? Can you see?” I could see well enough. I just didn’t want them to see my red cheeks, which were an indicator of how scary and profoundly exciting attention was—a fact I found so embarrassing as to be nearly shameful.

I concentrated on reading well. The words were always strengthening. I remember reading Lorca. Yeats. I don’t know who else. And yes, it went through my whole body, brain to ear to heart to breath. Mouth, lips.  My head tipped over the book. My own voice and the poet’s in my blood. Breasts, hips, the pool of my long, flowered dress around my ankles. That particular audience—Caitlin, Tamsen, Julie, Julian, maybe Charles, maybe Annabel—would dim and the larger one emerge: the one I was waiting for, and the one I felt in surrounding night.

But audio books weren’t invented for nights like that. Reading aloud isn’t feasible if you’re commuting to work alone. I suppose the very rich could hire a reader to join him/her in the Mercedes, but the very rich don’t exist anymore, or so they’d like you to believe.

I don’t imagine it would be too popular on airplanes. Though if they start letting people use cellphones in the air, I’ll fight back by reading The Wasteland aloud. At the first complaint, I’ll call my answering machine. “It’s my husband,” I’ll say. “He’s having a panic attack. Hearing Eliot always soothes him.”

Some things need to be read aloud, even if you’re alone. This is especially true of poems (though Dickens and Hemingway also benefit). Reading poetry silently is not quite like reading notes of music on the page—I don’t think; I can’t read music—but it’s close. This is true of poems with lush gorgeous rhythms, like Keats’ odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Dover Beach…or any of a thousand other poems…but also with Robert Creeley’s spare, odd poems.

The Rain

All night the sound had

come back again,

and again falls

this quite, persistent rain.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often? Is it

that never the ease,

even the hardness,

of rain falling

will have for me

something other than this,

something not so insistent–

am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,

lie next to me.

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.


March 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Jeff Bezos at a tender age

Jeff Bezos at a tender age

The Times had a piece today about a medical student, Satre Stuelke, who’s been doing CT scans of ‘cultural icons’ like iphones and Barbie dolls so I clicked on the pix to see what my inner iphone looked like. I wasn’t impressed. The CT scan of my husband’s head done years ago was way more interesting, making me think that perhaps humans were not descended from apes but horses.*

They didn’t include a Kindle in the slide show but I know what I’d find if I looked inside, since it’s not thick enough for circuitry: relics from famous authors, a bone, a tuft of hair, sprinkled with fairy dust or holy water, depending on the writer, and lashed to service by the stern mumbo jumbo of somebody contemporary and prize-heavy like Ian McEwan.

The Kindle is re-igniting my buying lust. I’d gotten sick of accumulating things. Now I can surf at midnight and in an instant have one of thousands of books, at a steep discount. Last night I bought a fantasy novel for 00.00 cents. It’s a loss leader, the beginning of a series, similar to the $1.69 Face yogurt Trader Joe’s was selling until yesterday when they upped it to $4.99 and I swore never to shop there again.

Before that, I had a birthday gift certificate to use up. So I haven’t actually spent any of my own money. Of course, it’s only been a little over a week.

People like looking at my Kindle. It’s a strangely naked feeling, letting someone play with it and see the 3 or 4 books I’ve bought. I’m used to my formidable library presenting evidence of how much great literature and serious nonfiction I’ve read. While my Kindle has on it…well, never mind.

One answer for this is to jettison anything embarrassing after reading. And if you should want to re-read, being in the same low-brain-cell mood? Amazon has developed a system, intended to keep you from overloading your Kindle’s memory, that enables you to delete a book from the device while amazon keeps a record of your past purchase, and lets you download it again—only to the same Kindle, naturally—anytime you want, free. It’s your very own secret (from your friends) online library, pristine and climate controlled in Jeff Bezos’ paternal embrace.**

Some people will have privacy concerns about the non-friends with access, although purchase records are already being kept by amazon (and everyone else), so it’s a little late to worry.  But the things I read will not land me in jail or even banned from teaching in the Texas public school system. What I write is more likely to get me in trouble. I’ve been considering this—reading recent wordpresss posts about people losing jobs after twittering—and though the particular mistake highlighted (slamming a prospective employer online) is not one I’m likely to make, I can think of lots of blog scenarios causing more than personal-life ill effects.

But of course I can. I wouldn’t be a fiction writer dabbling in fantasy if I couldn’t conjure doom at will and festoon it with comic grotesquerie.

The more important lesson for me is the one I learned in group therapy: while you struggle to confess your agonizing, shameful secret, the one that will make people mock you and shun you forever, your listener is tapping her feet and mentally sticking her fingers in her ears so she won’t forget the radioactive, brontosaurus-sized secret she needs you to shut the fuck up and pay reverent attention to.

*He had blinding headaches, which they decided were migraine since they couldn’t find anything wrong. I’m still suspicious since it was right after that that he started making lots more money.

** Part of what attracted me to amazon in the late ‘90’s was the name. Then I take a look at Jeff Bezos (most recently on Jon Stewart). Smart guy, sure. Making a bundle on the Kindle. But an amazon he’s not. This is a question probably answered somewhere long ago—but was he the rare lad who ignored Batman and The Incredible Hulk, reading Wonder Woman comics at night under the covers?


Readers and Writers

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

My sister bought me a Kindle for my birthday! I had just decided to stop buying books—as well as chocolate, fruit other than apples and bananas, and Perrier. I was going to do what my brother suggested and live on spaghetti and spam. Start watching more TV.

But she bought me a Kindle so I’ll have to download a few books, right? The Kindle will be perfect for all those airplane trips I can’t afford to take anymore. I have a few books on my iphone, mostly Dickens, but I hardly ever read my phone. I use it to take pictures. Which reminds me—another iphone app I’ve thought of: you rub the screen a few times and then aim it at your pile of gathered kindling and it starts a fire. It will come in handy when we’re all living in the National Parks, hiding from the reckless hordes of starving immigrants besieging our shores. Yeah, I know we’ve probably got ten years before the world’s coastal cities disappear and things get ugly. Still, it’s good to be ready.


A writer friend of mine who fought in Vietnam recently wrote a novel about that war and sent it to his agent. His agent asked him to set it in Iraq. I guess the idea is if your book is on Iraq you can go on Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose, and what could be finer than that (unless you’re Jim Cramer)?

I think he should write a novel about a squadron of young recruits being sent to Iraq, entering a time warp after the plane collides with some very old geese, and ending up in Vietnam, circa 1966.
“Man, this is some weird desert.”
“Desert’s supposed to be sand, right?”
“Probably the whole country isn’t desert. You know, like Arizona isn’t the whole U.S. This is just like Lousiana.”
“I been to Louisiana. This ain’t Louisiana.”
“How come our guys all have their guns pointed at us?”
“They sure look funny.”
“They’ve all got fucking antique guns, that’s why.”
“Fucking Bush.”

Okay, now you see it has to be a TV show. Hogan’s Heroes meets Gilligan’s Island. The present-day guys finally figure out what’s going on and try to explain that the war is over, that we lost, that there was no point to the whole mess anyway and the best idea would be to sneak over to Iraq and kill Saddam while he’s still a young thug (though others have different ideas on who should be killed).

The Vietnam-era soldiers, annoyed by being asked whether they’ve killed any babies yet and where their ear collection is, spike the newbies’ drinks with hallucinogens and send them out to find what the old soldiers keep referring to as ‘IUDs’, except for stuttering Jeremy from Fresno who has an eidetic memory for Internet porn, and is kept in camp to spend his evenings describing every video he’s ever seen in minute detail. Viewers love the way his stuttering disappears when the sex gets hot, and the way the Vietnam-era guys smack him every time he says, “iphone.”

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