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Happy Audio Book Month

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Did you know that it’s Audio Book Month? I’m going to guess you didn’t. It’s hard for me to imagine too many Rumpus readers habitually listening to books read aloud by other people, usually not the people who wrote the books. Not to sound like an anti-audio book snob; I know there shouldn’t be a stigma associated with listening to books, as opposed to reading them. But maybe I perceive one, anyway.

My husband, Brian, must too. He’s quick to defend his listening to The Odyssey, narrated by Ian McKellen, while on a long drive to Canada with his brother several years ago. “The Odyssey was meant to be told, as part of the oral tradition,” he will assert when it comes up.

Brian’s widowed 90-year-old mother, however, harbors no shame about her affection for audio books – nor for a particular audio book narrator, Scott Brick. (She also read-reads books. She goes through about five titles a week, a few in print, a couple on tape or CD.)

Shortly after meeting Bridget in 2003, I started hearing of her love for Brick’s smooth baritone. “When I take her to the library,” my sister-in-law told me, “she asks the librarian, ‘Do you have anything read by Scott Brick that I haven’t listened to already?’”

Anytime someone in the family would mention Brick’s name, Bridget would get moony. “He could read me the dictionary…” she’d say, batting her eyelashes and staring off wistfully – totally milking it – and we’d all melt.

In the summer of 2006, as we were approaching Bridget’s 85th birthday with a dearth of gift ideas, I came up with a long shot: I could try to contact Brick and see if he’d send her…something. Anything. An autographed photo maybe, at the very least.

When I emailed Brick via the contact button on his website, it occurred to me he might not respond. He turned out to be kind of a big deal in the audio book world – A Publisher’s Weekly Narrator of the Year! Over 40 Ear Phone Awards! “A golden voice,” according to the Wall Street Journal! – and also an actor and screenwriter. And even if he weren’t too busy to answer his own mail, it dawned on me it was entirely possible he’d be creeped out by some old lady in upstate New York swooning at the sound of his voice.

But a day later, he responded, and was clearly touched. He offered to send Bridget a special birthday package. We spoke on the phone so I could provide details. (He really did have a nice voice…)

He sent the birthday present to me first. It was torture trying to keep it under wraps for the week or so I held onto it. It contained an autographed photo, a collection of audio books he’d recorded that weren’t yet released, and the highlight: a half-hour tape in which he narrates various points throughout his day (“I’m at the studio now, and I’m about to start reading a Nelson Demille book…”) and ends by reading her a couple of entries from the dictionary – “happy,” “birthday,” and “Bridge,” because I told him that her nick name at the orphanages and convents where she grew up had been “The Brooklyn Bridge.”

Oh, did I neglect to mention that Bridget grew up in orphanages and convents? Yeah, that kind of makes the story even sweeter, doesn’t it? She wasn’t a true orphan, actually. When she was about three, the Catholic Charities took Bridget and her siblings away from their parents because they lived on a tugboat in New York Harbor. The Catholic Charities felt that wasn’t a good way for kids to be raised, so they swiped them and sent them off to orphanages run by nuns. But that’s a whole other story. (That’s whose memoir I should be ghostwriting, or co-writing.)

Anyway, if you think there’s something deeply satisfying about providing an adorable 85-year-old with a gift you know she’s going to love, imagine if that 85-year-old grew up in orphanages and convents until she was old enough to be on her own. The satisfaction is exponentially greater. In case you aren’t already deeply touched (or thoroughly nauseated) here’s a video of Bridget opening Scott Brick’s present on her 85th birthday. (Sorry about the loud, shitty music playing in the background that day.) We’ll never top that gift. The following year, we gave her…I don’t know, a scarf? And a brick with “Scott” written on it.

A couple of years later, when I took an adjunct journalism professor job a little over an hour from my home, Bridget suggested I might try listening to audio books on my commute. With more than four hours of driving to get through each week I figured, sure, why not? Of course, I had to start with my mother-in-law’s favorite narrator.

On Audible.com, I found a vast selection narrated by Brick – classics and thrillers and sci fi. The one that seemed most in keeping with my taste – literary autobiographical-ish fiction, about writers – was Keith Gessen’s novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men.

I was excited to give it a try, but first I had to get through Apple’s cryptic, byzantine process for putting audio books you’ve downloaded to iTunes onto your iPhone. Once I figured that out (I have not been able to replicate it since), Gessen’s book turned out to be a good first choice. I enjoyed it, and appreciated Brick’s ability to make each character sound different – especially since some of the characters bear strong similarities. I felt as if Brick’s interpretations of the men and women, the subtle differences he gave them in their accents, tones and speech patterns, helped me understand them possibly better than if I’d read the book.

When I was done, not eager to deal with the iPhone uploading issue again, I headed to my local library in search of audio books on CD. They had the John Cheever Audio Collection, with stories narrated by Meryl Streep, Blythe Danner, Peter Gallagher, George Plimpton, Cheever himself, and others. I was watching season three of Mad Men then, so it was good timing. I had read some of those stories before, and loved them. But I loved them even more read by the actors and writers performing them.

This listening-to-books-while-driving business was working out pretty well. I was using my commuting so time efficiently, filling my brain with literature as I drove.

Next, I went for The Sun Also Rises, narrated by William Hurt. As good as Scott Brick is, it’s probably no surprise that Hurt gives him a run for his money as a narrator, making every character, major and minor, sound notably distinct. Again, to my surprise, the audio book format brought the story to life for me in a way the print version hadn’t. (Granted, I’d been in high school when I read it.)

It seemed to make sense to try audio versions of other books I hadn’t fully connected with before. It felt a little like cheating, like a short-cut, but who would know? I’m embarrassingly poorly read for an English major, and here was a chance to catch up on wide swaths of the Western cannon that I’d skipped – or skimmed – over. Having recently loved reading Anna Karenina, I signed out the audio version of War and Peace.

I didn’t realize, though, that I’d picked up a dramatized edition – a recording of a staging of Tolstoy’s novel. I found that without narration, I was having a hard time keeping track of the characters, plus I kept getting distracted by things on the road, like, oh, other cars. I’d lose my place, and have to rewind, nearly crashing a couple of times.

I gave up on the dramatized edition of War and Peace two disks in. And then I never picked up another audio book. I stopped teaching after a couple of semesters; it was costing me almost my entire paycheck just to fill my gas tank each week. I realized I like listening to stories in the car. But now I’m rarely in it longer than the length of a Moth podcast, or maybe a This American Life episode.

Bridget, though, keeps tearing through the audio book section of the Oneonta Library, plus the shelves stocking the true crime and crime fiction. Those are really her favorites. For Mother’s Day we got her True Crimes of Passion: When Love Hurts, a nonfiction anthology with a lot of blood and guts in it. She loves Court TV, too, especially when there are murder trials. One of her daughters will say, “Mom’s glued to The Headless Torso channel again.”

She’s listened to pretty much everything Brick has recorded – even Gessen’s novel, which I got her last year for one occasion or another. “How’d you like it?” I asked. “Pretty good,” she said, “for a book with no murder in it.” (If that’s not a potential blurb for future editions, I don’t know what is.)

Bridget will turn 91 in August. I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping Brick has recorded something new by then. Otherwise, I’m at a complete loss as to what to get her – and taking suggestions.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →