Listening to Huck Finn

Who me, listen to audio books? That was my attitude until recently, a prejudice of my profession that literature is better read than heard. But on a solo road trip this summer I took along the ten-disk set of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the ride.

I had my doubts about this experience, not believing that I could follow the entire book. But I was mesmerized by the auditory world hitherto mute to me as I hurled through the Midwestern landscape. If literature is supposed to defamiliarize our perception of life, then hearing Huck Finn defamiliarized my understanding of literature. First of all, my sense of attentiveness was different. Rather than focusing on tactility of the pages (or of an electronic reader) and the optical arrangement of the words into lines, paragraphs and pages, my awareness was principally aural. Saddled into my seat, I had the sensation of penetrating a continuous narrative, interrupted only by the narrator’s announcement of a new chapter or the necessity of changing the disk.

What struck me as strange was the way I had to reorient my approach to and then my position within the novel. With my ears as guides, I concentrated on the sonic nature of the story, on pitch, pause, cadence, intonation, accent, and breath. It was as if, robbed of my capacity to read by a stroke or some other catastrophic event, I had to rely on my auditory apparatus to feel my way through the narrative. I appeared to be compensating with my ears for something I could no longer do – process the words visually. Staring at the road ahead, I was eavesdropping on the conversations of Huck and Jim.

As the waves of the story reverberated through the car, I felt myself pulled into Twain’s world, incapable of maintaining the critical distance permitted by writing. When reading you gain perspective by closing your eyes, even for a second, moving them up or down, daydreaming perhaps, or concentrating on the distinction between your universe and that imagined one. The latter is particularly important in Huck Finn for it continually plays with the difference between representation and reality. This is less possible when listening.

For this reason, I could keep the CD on only when the drive was smooth and uneventful. Upon hitting heavy traffic, or commanded by Doris -- the name our daughter had given our GPS -- with her metallic inflection to exit Highway 94, I had to turn it off.

Of course, this experience was not entirely new. I had attended readings of literature before. But these were public events not affording the intimacy of the car. At home I read to our three children, a daily activity that taught me to go over lines slowly and with a sense of purpose and drama. And I speak passages out loud in class or have students declaim them.

But this was the first time I was a sustained listener, and the object of the experience was pleasure itself, rather than politely hearing colleagues or guests reading from their work. Although I had read Huck Finn a number of times, had used the work in my own writing, and had taught it in class, I had always conducted the reading in silence with words triggering concepts, images, or situations in my mind.

For this reason, when I slipped the disk into the CD player I had expected the narrator, Norman Dietz, to recite the novel in one tone. But in reality he acted it out in the various voices, giving expression to the “polylalia” of Twain’s work.

This was the main difference for me. I finally heard the dialects clashing and clamoring. The novel had gained a hitherto unperceived dimension. And it was the first time that I had understood Jim. I had struggled in the past with his speech, sometimes skimming over his words, silencing him in a way. And I remember when, as an immigrant whose native language at home was not English, I was severely challenged by the various linguistic registers. Had the novel not been assigned in my high-school class, I doubt that I would have finished it. Moreover, because parts struck my teen-age ears almost like a foreign language, I had feared returning to it as an adult.

Hearing these different idioms of the demotic play themselves out in the car, I understood internally what I had always known that this was a carnivalesque work in the Bakhtinian sense. The words and conversations popped out at me.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that writing silences the voice. I am not arguing that print confines reading into a linearity of direction. Our imagination can’t just be imprisoned in this way.

But I am saying that the institution of literature, which is partly a product of print, has converted the orality and aurality of human expression into written text. Derrida has argued that the logocentric tradition of the West has privileged the living voice over the dead letter. But with respect to literature the opposite is true. The critical practices of the last two centuries have transformed diverse artifacts from epic to lyric, originally functioning as oral poetry, into material for private reading. For two centuries, the “authentic” high literary experience has been hushed, austere, and monastic.

Perhaps what we have is less logophobia than graphomania, a tendency that continues with the Internet. We hear much that electronic writing is eroding the characteristics of print such as copyright, the self-contained text, and autonomous author, yielding a more fluid textuality. But at the same time, it is creating a rising tide of writing, ever-expanding into texting, email, and the web-archive. The world is turning into text in a Mallarméan and Derridean sense.

So it was with pleasure and relief that for a couple of hours I gave into a very ancient experience.

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