Old School

Preparing myself for the one ride on the indoor trainer I’ve done so far this winter (mentioned in yesterday’s post), I went to the library to get an audiobook to listen to while I pedal. I picked up Tobias Wolff’s Old School, which I’d read an excerpt of a while back in the New Yorker, and which has stuck with me all this time. Alas, it didn’t make riding on the trainer any easier — I was hoping I would get caught up in the story and forget I was pedaling, but no such luck — but it has been an excellent book to listen to. I’ve taken it with me to listen to in the car a couple of times now and am about halfway through.

It’s hard for me to separate what I’m liking about the book and what I’m liking about the reader and having the book read to me; I didn’t like the reader’s attempts at a southern accent all that much, but otherwise he’s done such a good job I’m finding myself laughing out loud as I’m driving along, something I rarely do when I’m reading, rather than listening to, a book. I often respond more emotionally to books I’m listening to as opposed to books I’m reading, and I’ve decided I must keep up the habit of listening to audiobooks, a habit I dropped when I stopped doing my ridiculously long commute of a couple years ago. I find it troubling that I have a stronger response to audiobooks than regular books, since that makes it seem like my response to regular books is weak, and I wonder what this says about me. But I suppose there’s nothing to do about it except listen to audiobooks regularly.

In the novel, Wolff’s first person narrator describes life in a boarding school, and at least for the narrator and his friends, literature and writing are very important. The school has a regularly-held contest where a famous writer comes to campus, reads student fiction or poetry, and selects a winner; that winner then gets to have a private audience with the famous writer. So far, the school has held two contests; for the first one, Robert Frost came to campus, and for the second, Ayn Rand.

What I love about the novel is the humor with which these visits and all the excitement they provoke are described. The narrator’s voice is wonderfully well-done, very sympathetic to his boyhood naivete and earnestness, but also able from the adult perspective to point out how funny he could be — how funny all the students could be. With each author’s visit there’s a set-piece where the author gives a speech or does a reading and the students and teachers challenge him or her and the authors talk back in a characteristic manner, Frost waxing eloquent about the value of poetic form, and Rand getting huffy and haughty and insisting that the best American novels ever are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

And the boys’ attempts at writing are funny — I don’t mean that in a mean way, but they are typical productions of adolescents who take themselves very seriously. The boy who wins the Robert Frost contest writes a poem in a very earnest Frost-like manner, but apparently it’s so bad Frost thinks it’s a send-up of his style and chooses it as the winner because he thinks the boy is brave for making fun of him. When the narrator finds out that Ayn Rand will be visiting campus he reads The Fountainhead and becomes a convert, looking with contempt at the silly, self-sacrificing, weak people surrounding him who so foolishly fail to appreciate the value of selfishness. If you’ve ever gone through an Ayn Rand phase, you will find this section hysterically funny and just a little bit painful.

And I’m only halfway through the book. I’ll be sure to report back on the pleasures to be found in the second half.


Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Old School

  1. If you enjoy Old School you will likely enjoy Wolff’s memoir, This Boys Life. It is one of my favorite modern memoirs. Thanks for the reminder of the joy of audio books. I have an hour commute each way to work and I had gotten away from the habit of listening to books. I will have to find a good one to try now.


  2. Cam

    I think it is interesting that your reaction is different emotionally to an audio tape than to a book. But I guess that makes sense in a way because you are reacting to a human voice, rather than words on a page. It isn’t that it is more interactive than reading, just that it more closely resembles the interaction with another human and it is natural to laugh aloud when someone does something funny or tells you something funny. I’ve never recognized a difference between my reactions, such as laughing out loud, while listening to an audio book rather as compared to reading a book, but I would guess that it probably is different. Having a very short 10 minutes commute means that I haven’t listened to an audio book for a long time.


  3. I’ve got this book and will read it soon. My brother raves about it. Funny, I’ve been listening to more audio books lately and have a post that’s been writing itself in my head. One day soon, it will make it out of my head and onto the blog.


  4. I have a hard time with audio books. My few experiences have not been good, and that is due mostly to the reader’s voice. You really have to pick (or hope for anyway) a good reader. One of my tries was a Rosamund Pilcher book–who is Scottish. It just didn’t sound right to me. But if you get a really good reader, I am sure audio books can be fun. I wouldn’t mind getting an iPod and listening to a book while walking outside. I have this book on my TBR pile and was just looking at it the other day. I look forward to hearing more about it. I think Cam is right about why you react more to a book that is read. Although you still process it the same way, you are hearing the vocalizations, and maybe just hearing the intonations makes you laugh or feel sad more easily. It is probably a sign of a good reader if you do do these things.


  5. I really loved this book – thought it was wonderfully written and so insightful about what it means to want to write. I have to say I have a real weakness for audio books. I like to listen to them in bed before going to sleep, and we always have children’s stories in the car if we’re going anywhere. I do agree that the voice makes all the difference. The only one I really hated was read by a woman with a breathy, little girl’s voice that grated like nails on a chalkboard.


  6. This book sounds like wonderful fun.

    I wonder if the difference between reading and hearing a book is the manner in which the words are taken in? When I’m reading the book I have more focus, pay attention to all the nuances, the punctuation, the words on the page. When I hear a book I just let it wash over me and enjoy the story without trying to figure out deeper themes or anything. So I am often surprised by the story in audiobooks in a way that reading the words doesn’t allow.


  7. This book sounds wonderful. I know I’ve seen it before but I don’t think I’ve ever picked it up. I would love to read it now.


  8. Having the right narrator for an audio book makes so much more difference than I would have initially thought. I have experienced some average readers, but when you get one who is great it really spoils you and raises your expectations for all other audio books.


  9. Baby D.

    I agree with Carl V. I use my iPod mostly to listen to audiobooks for my 45 min commute to work, so I’ve listened to quite a few. To me, the ones whose narrator adds to the experience are Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” read by Lisette Lecat, Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” read by Elizabeth Sastre, and Rory Stewart’s “The Places In Between” read by the author (which is how I found this blog). I have not read any of those books before I listened to them, so I can’t compare my reading vs listening experiences.


  10. Brad — I read This Boy’s Life a while back and loved it — good call! Cam — that’s interesting and you’re right; listening to a voice and interacting (sort of) with a person does make the difference. Your explanation makes perfect sense. I hope you enjoy the book Emily! (I’m pretty sure you will …) Danielle, you’re right that the experience really does depend on the reader; fortunately, I’m generally lucky and like the readers. I need to figure out how to get books on my iPod — well, I’m not willing to pay for audiobooks, so maybe it’s not possible. Litlove — I’m glad you liked this book too; I’ll have to read more Wolff most definitely. Stefanie — you’re right; I don’t stop and think when I listen, and that makes it more visceral experience in a way. Iliana — do pick it up if you get the urge; it’s wonderful! Carl — I want good readers but I don’t want to be spoiled! The reader does make such a difference. Baby D. — thanks for the list; I’ve thought about reading Brick Lane but probably won’t, which makes it a perfect candidate for an audiobook. I’ll have to hunt that one down. And I would have loved to listen to Rory Stewart read his book! It’s almost worth listening to anyway, even though I’ve already read it.


  11. Oh yes… I went through an “Ayn Rand” phase. And then I got pregnant and became a socialist. 🙂


  12. I bet tons of people went through an Ayn Rand phase — it’s interesting what brings people out of it 🙂


  13. Pingback: Just a few notes … « Of Books and Bicycles

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