illustration by Joon Mo Kang
By JAMES PARKER
Morning commute in America. “I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. . . . ” At the wheel of her Subaru, driving east on (perhaps) the Massachusetts Turnpike, a woman is afloat on, adrift in, the Germanic guru-tones of Eckhart Tolle. Raw winter light irradiates the car, fixing every scratch on the windshield in a constellation of worldly damage, and Tolle’s voice — deep but somewhat nasal, as if he has a tiny Jedi Master lodged in his sinuses — snuffles spiritually from the speakers. “I could feel myself being sucked into a void. . . . Suddenly there was no more fear.”
Audiobooks are on the rise. Purchasable, downloadable, borrowable from the library, they are making ever deeper inroads into what publishers persist in calling (with touching optimism) “the book market”: a recent article by Peter Osnos on The Atlantic Web site parsed the sales data in anticipation of a “coming audiobooks boom.” There’s something lovely about this. At the very moment the poor old book-object dissolves before our eyes, pecked to pieces by the angry birds of Kindle, iPad and the rest, we are renewing our primary contract with the author by offering him our ears. We offer them intimately — in the car, in the kitchen, or in bed, on headphones, the sleeping spouse-form heavily at hand while poetry or fiction or New Age consolation is piped directly into our cranial darkness. The voice of Eckhart Tolle, well known to the millions of hungry souls who have purchased audio versions of “The Power of Now” or “A New Earth,” is but a strand of the Voice, that human frequency without which, it seems, we cannot do.
It feels banal to observe that the voice is older than the printed word, and has a senior claim upon our attention. So banal, in fact, that I’m going to leave it to Oscar Wilde. “Since the introduction of printing,” he wrote in “The Critic as Artist,” “there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always.” Wilde’s own interface with audio technology is historically shrouded: did he or did he not, at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, recite part of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” into the recording horn of one of Thomas Edison’s phonographs? Biographers are unclear. Half a century would pass before Dylan Thomas, quivering Celtic super-ham, sealed the compact between literature and the microphone with a 1952 session for Caedmon Records. Some poems, some shaken jowls, and the literary celebrity spoken-word recording was born. Three years after that, Caedmon’s engineers captured T. S. Eliot reading “Preludes”: “The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted. . . . ” Morose, incantatory — how does one begin to describe Eliot’s style on the mic? Anglo-Golgothan, maybe.