It’s In The Voice

I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. Well, I’ve been listening to it on Audible. I attempted an audio book once before and it drove me nuts. The voice reading it was painful, like brain freeze, or living under a flight path. I have no idea what the book was about. I was so busy trying not to focus on the noise that I missed the actual story. I wonder how a voice like that got a reading gig. I was disappointed, and not just because of the voice. I was hoping to do my bit for the environment — you know, save a few trees, not buy hardcover books. I wanted to save space too. I moved, and downsized considerably early this year. I must have donated a few hundred books in the culling of my possessions. I’d watched Minimalism on Netflix and felt shame at the abundance of material shit I’d accumulated over the years. I wanted to rid myself of a lifetime of unnecessary collectables — mine and others’. Moving from a lavish five-bedroom home into a modest two-bedroom apartment, you don’t have much choice but to cull. I’d rather give my clothes away than my books, but I had to do both. I made a pact from that moment on to wean myself off paperback to audio. I never wanted to pack and move two dozen boxes of books ever again. Audio books also appealed to me because my eyesight is crap these days, so reading can be tricky. It’s all about lighting. When did I get old? I thought Audible was the answer to my prayers…

No. It wasn’t.

I’ve bought a dozen paperbacks since making my secret pact. So much for my minimalism pledge.

Still, when I learned Michelle Obama would be narrating her own book, I thought now there’s a voice that could melt chocolate. Like Oprah or Morgan Freeman or Anthony Hopkins. They’d make a eulogy exciting. Their voices do not give brain freeze. I was willing to give Audible another go. Now I’m not usually a fan of autobiography. Memoirs yes – my first love – but that’s an entirely different thing. And I’m especially not a fan of autobiography that has political overtones. Frankly, I’d rather take a nap. Although I have always wanted to read Bill Clinton’s autobiography — and Idi Amin’s of all people.

Anyway. I decided to use time constructively. Instead of listening to music while I exercised, I’d listen to Michelle. One day I went for an early-morning walk, put on my headphones and started listening. I was right. Her story unfolds in a velvety melody of words and sentences that held my attention in every minute detail. I hung on to her every word, visualising the characters and scenes as if they were playing out on a screen. That first time two hours went by before I even realised. Of course the next day my hip flexors knew exactly how long I’d been walking. About an hour and 10 minutes too long!

Every time I walked or went to the gym I’d listen. I didn’t zone out when she got political — in fact I learnt things about American politics I never knew. And that shit is complicated.

Becoming is a long book. A friend told me to speed up the audio. I didn’t know you could do that. I tried it, and even when Michelle is on chipmunk speed, nothing diminishes the sound of her delicious voice. I put it back to normal though. I didn’t want to miss a beat. You can’t rush a masterpiece. That’s my 5-star review.

But here’s my problem with Audible:

I did miss some beats as Michelle delved into her story. Some things were so brilliant I wanted to hear them again. Like when Barack proposed to her. At that very same moment I tripped in a pothole and nearly went flying headfirst into a moving tram. It was such a great scene. The proposal —  not the tram slamming. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone, trying to find out how to rewind. I stuffed it up, and went back way too far. And I did that every time I tried to rewind. It was all too disrupting for my attention and my stride. After that, when something profound resonated I’d quickly check the recording timeline, make a mental note and promise myself to go back to it when I was sitting at my desk hours later. When the time came, I’d forget my mental notes. F***ing brain fog.

So I’ve just ordered the hardcopy of Becoming. I realise that no matter how great the voice, I need to see the words on the page, with my own eyes. I need to feel the paper between my fingers, to be able to flick back and forth in an instant. Or do the unthinkable: use a highlighter to mark the standout pieces. I need to speak out loud, in my own voice, repeat the good bits so they sink into my psyche like a tattoo, easily accessible at any given moment. And then there’s the smell. You can’t beat the smell of a freshly printed book not yet opened. At the beginning, ever so gently, I turn each page as if it’s some relic. By the time I’m half way through, all thoughts of delicacy have gone.

I’ll still listen to Audible if the voice fits the story. But even when it does I’ll buy the paperback. Well, until my eyesight is totally shot to shit.

Marcia Abboud