I go through stages of listening to audiobooks on my commute to work (about 40 minutes each way) and then not, and now I’m in a stage where I’m listening to them avidly. After finishing Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, I turned to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and then to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which I just finished on the drive home tonight.
Listening to Rebecca was a fabulous experience; it’s my first encounter with a du Maurier novel, and probably not my last. It’s a perfect book to listen to. It’s from a first-person perspective, first of all, which means there’s an intimacy to the voice (a literal voice, of course, not metaphorical) that pulls me into the story. It’s also such a moody, atmospheric novel, and having someone read it to me increases that sense of atmosphere. I respond to the words, of course, but also to a tone of voice and a manner of pronouncing those words, and that tone and manner enrich the whole experience.
I probably don’t need to tell you what a wonderfully fun book it is — such a good story, such interesting relationships among the characters, such a complex situation and a suspenseful ending.
Murder on the Orient Express was also enjoyable to listen to, but it didn’t go quite as well as Rebecca did. I’m wondering if it isn’t as well-suited to listening as du Maurier’s book is. The problem was that it was very hard to keep the details straight. Murder is one of those puzzle-type mysteries where all the evidence is given and it’s possible for the reader to piece it all together (or at least I think it might be — I could never accomplish such a feat myself, so I can only assume that others with minds better suited to the task could). Hercules Poirot and the two men who work with him go over the evidence again and again, scouring it for information and clues. All this was hard to keep straight when I couldn’t flip back and forth in the book to double-check information.
So now I’m thinking I should listen to books that emphasize character and atmosphere rather than ones that require me to keep track of a complicated plot or remember a lot of information. But it’s also true that I’m drawn to character-driven books anyway, so perhaps the audio format just confirms and perhaps enhances the biases that already exist.
Both books showed me that the audio format makes the techniques authors use to generate suspense much more transparent. Since I couldn’t flip a page or two ahead or even look down to the bottom of the page to see what was coming, I had to sit there waiting breathlessly for the narrator to say the words that would clear up the mystery. When Hercules Poirot has gathered everyone together at the novel’s end to go through the evidence one last time and to reveal the solution to the mystery, I was acutely aware of the way Christie has him stop right before the final revelation to make a digression designed to drive the reader crazy with suspense. The ending of Rebecca felt exactly the same way. With a regular book, an author can’t control the order in which you read the words and can only hope that you experience the suspense he or she was trying to create. You can skip ahead on a CD, of course, but it’s not nearly as easy as flipping through the pages of a book skimming for revealing information.