Aural History

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I’ve read the education of Henry Adams.

You might think that this should go without saying for someone in my job, and you’d be right. But I’m afraid that more than once I told people I’d read The Education of Henry Adams when in fact I hadn’t. The first of these was the college history professor who assigned me the book; I gave it a mildly diligent try, only to be scared off by the levels of irony I sensed. They disturbed the transparent prose the way that heat rising from the hood of a car ripples a summer vista. This guy was too smart for me.

Several times in recent years I resolved to go back to it, but by then, like every other middle-aged person I’d regarded with amused condescension from the spacious afternoons of my late adolescence, I had become “too busy to read as much as I’d like.”

But now this state has been greatly ameliorated. I didn’t, strictly speaking, read The Education of Henry Adams ; I listened to it, as I have a great many books recently. The process is surprisingly easy: You consult a catalogue issued by a recorded-book company, call in (or fax or write) your choice of title, and give a credit-card number, and in a few days you receive a neat box of cassettes in the mail. When you’re through, you put the cassettes back in the box and drop it into a mailbox. Then you can order the next book. I think you will too.

For some years I’d felt cordial to these rental companies because they advertised with us. Nevertheless the whole process seemed cumbersome and rather pointless to me. Why go through this postal rigmarole when you can just pick up a book?

Then I found myself regularly having to make two of the most aggravating drives on the North American continent—Manhattan to Eastern Long Island, Manhattan to New Jersey—and I thought I’d give audio books a try.

Instant relief, as they used to say in commercials. With one of those cassettes spooling away, no traffic imbecility on the Long Island Expressway could vex me; the still more horrible approach to the Holland Tunnel became benign, even appealing. When you’re listening to a book, you don’t feel the gnawing of wasted time.

But there’s more to it than that. The books in the catalogues that the companies issue are, in effect, always in print. If it weren’t for Books on Tape, Inc., I’m sure I would never have known about an uncommonly good trilogy of novels by Elleston Trevor charting England’s changing fortunes in the Second World War: The Big Pickup (rescue from calamity at Dunkirk), Squadron Airborne (a week among fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain), and The Killing Ground (tanks make their way up from the beach at Normandy). All three of these are history at its finest and most immediate—Trevor had flown for the RAF—and all of them are unavailable anywhere else I know.

That’s not quite the case with C. P. Snow. A generation ago everyone read his books, and libraries inevitably have two or three on their shelves. But today Snow is the object of a curious undeserved amnesia. He saw the middle years of this century from “the corridors of power” (a phrase he coined in passing) and wrote with intimacy and wisdom about the public and private lives of those who shaped its course. I think that as the millennium turns and the generation that knew firsthand the years he chronicled dies off, Snow will be back. In the meantime Books on Tape is keeping him alive.

Formal history is served equally well by these enterprises. Recorded Books, for instance, has a fine rendition of John Keegan’s recent History of Warfare —a long, consistently absorbing refutation of Clausewitz—and all of these companies offer an excellent selection of military history (for that of a later day, try Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk , the memoir, at once understated and stinging, of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, which Roger Spiller recommended to me years ago and which I read only when Books on Tape gave me the chance).

There is, of course, always someone standing between you and the book, and you’re bound to find some readers more congenial than others. Many of my friends think that Recorded Books’ Patrick Tull is the definitive voice of Patrick O’Brian’s great Napoleonic sea stories, but I find his delivery a bit too plummy and Victorian; Richard Brown’s restrained, sardonic performance for Books on Tape more closely chimes with my idea of how the early nineteenth century should sound. On the other hand, Recorded Books has a superb reading—dark, close, thoughtful—by George Guidall of The Killer Angels , Michael Shaara’s novel about the Battle of Gettysburg that has, over the past decade, crossed the boundary from underground enthusiasm to American classic.

And as for Henry Adams, his education appears on Blackstone Audio Books, nicely spoken by Wolfram Kandinsky. Adams moved in interesting circles—Algernon Swinburne, Abraham Lincoln, Lord Palmerston, Ulysses S. Grant, any number of fascinating women—and now at last I can say, without dissembling, “You really should read The Education.” Or listen to it.