A while back I read an excerpt from Stephen King’s On Writing (I didn’t read the whole thing until much later) that said he reads around 60-80 books a year. The stat staggered me. I considered myself an avid reader but was getting nowhere near that number. I reinvested myself in reading and took one piece of advice from King – listen to books. Fast forward to now, and I do all of my nonfiction books on Audible.
The experience is interesting and can be hit or miss based on the reader of the book. I prefer novels read by the author (because even though they may be more boring than the professionals, there is a ‘correctness’ in the way they interpret) and between 8-10 hours long. But my favorite audiobook of all-time fits neither of those parameters. My favorite audiobook (and maybe book in general) is The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. And this is where Audible needs to start paying me advertising fees, because I don’t like any plain audio rendition of The Right Stuff. It needs to be the Audible Original reading by Dennis Quaid. Any other version is inferior.
Tom Wolfe is a great author, a ground-breaking author, one of my favorite authors, but a strange author, full of rhythm and sound, rapping and beats, impressions and emotions. In more frank terms, he does some weird shit. And sometimes it gets very lost on me.
Take Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for instance- my introduction to Wolfe. I am not an acid head nor have I ever been an acid head, so I was relying entirely on Wolfe to relay to me what it is like to be on acid and at an LSD party, and he does it, which is a testament to his writing. But there are moments when he is conveying these experiences, and I just can’t pick up the ‘feel’ of what he is doing. Here is an example of the brilliance and absurdity of Wolfe’s truly inspired moments…
You can see the rising emotion that builds on itself like a wave, the rhythm and cadence that sputters into existence hits a high rev and then downshifts into a lower gear, the visual effect of tracking sentences of such odd form. Its brilliant, but also takes a lot of interpreting, and can be off-putting and distancing when it misses.
On a separate and soon to be converging note, I think the great part about audiobooks is that they’re steeped in the rich oral history of storytelling, where the orator makes their interpretation of the text and through their telling of it they help you understand the writing better than through reading it. This doesn’t always happen, in fact I may argue that it rarely does, but sometimes it does, and those are some memorable moments.
So when Dennis Quaid reads The Right Stuff for Audible (hit me up Audible) both of these worlds collide like a jet through the sound barrier. As he read the opening chapter- no- as he interpreted the opening chapter about the danger of being a pilot, his voice swelled with the action of piloting fighter planes and waned with the solemnity of tragedy, and as he read Tom Wolfe’s repetition in unique ways and paused and ran the sentences together as necessary, I got it. I emotionally connected with the story. I understood it better than I ever could have on my own, and in my book reading life, it will be a moment I never forget. That sounds so melodramatic, but it’s true. Every once in a while, as I go about my day, I will look at a person or a thing or my cat and be like, “He’s got the most righteous stuff” in my very best Dennis Quaid snarl (my friend says he sounds like what a Miller Lite can would sound like- poetic).
Quaid’s voice fits the Wolfe-isms of The Right Stuff perfectly, and apparently from his time in the film version he understands the emotions behind the story, and he brings it to life in a way that left me wanting it to go on and on.
The book is phenomenal, audiobook or not. So if you can only get it in print, devour it. But for my money, I’m listening to Quaid.
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If you liked this you may also like: Reticence and Memory, A Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro] or The Ring Thing [The Fortress of Solitude]