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February 2, 2001

I have discovered the secret of making a twelve-hour drive pleasurable. The secret is: cruise control and audiobooks. You need both.

I’ve driven coast to coast in my little Nissan Sentra without benefit of stereo or cruise control, and I have to say it was quite alright at the time. But I’m much less comfortable traveling now, and cruise control is a great relief to an aching knee.

Plus, I’m less patient with the whole process of passing twelve hours in a car. I wonder if the knowledge that I can get to London or Prague in twelve hours has tainted the experience.

My new Dramamine is audiobooks. I know people who can not listen and drive, because they get too involved in the story and don’t drive attentively. I believe that I was watchful of everything around me, except for one lousy speed limit sign. My keen awareness mattered not to the Officer of the Town of La Jara.

In the January issue of “Atlantic Monthly,” James Fallows describes his experience listening to a book he’d already read. He was scanning through radio stations and stopped on a dramatic reading of “Independence Day” by Richard Ford.

He was pleasantly surprised. The story was different than he’d remembered. He took notice of minor characters and envisioned the scenes more vividly than before. It was essentially a new tale.

Perhaps children have it right: When learning to read, they usually want to sound out the words. Often enough, they’re told not to. So they learn to move their lips but keep quiet.

It takes me many, many hours to read a book, about as long as it takes to read an audiobook. I might as well read it out loud. Fallows has resolved to improve the voice in his head to approximate some of the rich voices he’s heard on tape. I can only guess that he must read slowly, too.

In any case, Fallows started listening to recorded books whenever he was driving. Many of the books he’d already read, but the vividness of the spoken word made him “doubt whether I had read them at all.”

We’ve probably all had the experience during reading when we get to the end of a page and find we can’t recall any of it. Our thoughts drift, or a subterranean flow of concerns carries away every word. When we close the book, we’re hard-pressed to find where we’d left off.

Books that have our attention are easy to re-enter. I can quickly find my place in an engaging book by bracketing between the familiar and unfamiliar prose until I find … ah! … the place I left off. In a good book, that spot remains familiar for a long time. It’s a cozy place.

I had a similar feeling on my recent trip to Arizona. I listened to several books to and fro, and whenever I stopped, I felt an unfamiliar impatience to be back in the car and on the road … and in the story.

I would resist pushing the tape in until I was on the highway again in cruise control and free to give my undivided attention to the book, after granting my full awareness to the road and traffic, of course.

I’m curious now to listen to a book I’ve already read. I may have to plan a trip soon.


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