"More than machinery, we need humanity."
This summer has been consumed by completely reorganizing and recataloging my library, and for over a month I’ve been slogging through the part of the process that requires printing out new spine labels for every single book, peeling off the spine labels of every single book, and replacing every single book’s old spine label with a new one. It’s that kind of deeply satisfying manual labor that keeps one’s hands and eyes occupied and one’s mind entirely free.
Audiobooks have never appealed to me—my eyes can read exponentially faster than a person can read aloud, and there are just so many books that I have to read in the relatively scant years allotted between literacy and death or blindness. Also, my mind is distractingly peripatetic—it’ll just wander off in the middle of a sentence and come back a chapter later, wondering what the hell happened. With print books I can just skip back a couple pages and start again, but audiobooks require rewinding (in the days of cassettes), skipping back (CDs) or trying to move that little tracker bar to just the right spot (downloads, and I always worry about scrambling it somehow).
My solutions has been to find free versions of books I already know and love, and listen to those—that way, if I get distracted, I won’t miss an important plot point, but won’t worry about rewinding. I found maybe one-quarter of “Lolita” uploaded for free and about three-quarters of “1984.” I listened to about twenty minutes of “A Clockwork Orange” before getting uncomfortable, and am currently a couple hours into “Fahrenheit 451.” It’s making me look at these old books in a brand-new way, and it’s terrible.
The first one I found was “Lolita,” read by Jeremy Irons. “Lolita” has been one of my favorite books for nigh on a decade, both because of the exquisite writing and Nabokov’s genius at manipulating his readers. I always knew that Humbert was a bad guy, for sure, but he’s just so charming! Or rather, I was charmed, reading his voice in my head, ascribing intonations and motivations and emphases to various phrases and words and passages; creating my “Lolita,” if you will, rather than this “Lolita.” Hearing another voice read those words, a grown man’s voice rather than mine (especially since I’ve only been grown and a man for a few years) was jarring. The words were familiar but I had never heard them spoken aloud, and hearing a man talk about abusing his first wife and then constantly insult and demean his second peeled off the veneer of charm. When Irons read Charlotte Haze’s lines, or Dolores’s, I realized, in a way that had never before been clear, that we the readers don’t really know a single thing about any of the girls or women that feature so prominently in the novel. We know what Humbert thinks about them, how he sees them, what he puts on them and what he wants from them, but we don’t really know them at all.
I had a similar experience with “1984,” repeated even more bluntly in “Fahrenheit 451.” I read “1984” at around the same time as “Lolita,” and liked it just as much if not more. 9/11 was on the horizon, and then happened, and I would refer to gym class as “doubleplus ungood” and inquire, “But haven’t we always been at war with Eurasia?” (because I was a pretentious snot of a high-schooler). I’ve read it several times since then and always found it chilling, and compelling, and vital.
Hearing it read aloud was great. But, like with “Lolita,” it’s a novel narrated by a man, read aloud by a man, and I began to realize just how completely absent women’s voices are from the text. There was Katharine, Winston’s wife, who never appears in the flesh but is just a specter of what the Party does to intimacy. There’s Julia, who always seemed badass to me, but hearing the narrator read her lines she suddenly seems assimilationist and not particularly bright, eminently capable but not nearly as enlightened or profound as Winston.
And then I started listening to the Bradbury classic “Fahrenheit 451.” (As an aside, I’ve never liked that book, and hoped that this would help me gain an appreciation of it, but if anything I dislike it more than I might have had I attempted a print version again). The qualms I had about “1984” are even more pronounced in “Fahrenheit 451.” Guy’s wife Mildred is identical to Katharine—a brainless woman who has wholeheartedly embraced the oppressions of her age, and clings to them even as they destroy her. Young Clarice is not identical to Julia, but they serve the exact same purpose—both women exist only to help the male protagonist achieve liberation and/or insight. They’re not really people at all to the authors, not really characters, just tools that their men use to further the plot. It’s not exactly the Madonna/whore dichotomy, but it’s not any better.
I’ve done my share of complaining about the patriarchy, and the Western canon, and the dreaded triumvirate of straight-white-men, and have always taken care to recommend and promote works by women—white women, women of color, queer women, straight women, trans women, cis women, non-disabled women, disabled women, et cetera et cetera (as well as men who exist within marginalized categories). And yet I never really criticized those straight-white-man books that I’ve loved so much. “1984” is great, “Brave New World” is great, “Lord of the Flies” is great, “Babbitt” is great, and I would never dare to turn my analytical gaze upon those books that everyone says are important.
When I first read these books I was a teenager just coming into a feminist consciousness (in one essay in “A Dolls House” I referred exclusively to “womyn”), and then I went to a women’s college and took Women’s Studies 101 and volunteered at an abortion clinic and flyered for Take Back the Night. I had a pretty mainstream, narrow, middle-class white woman’s take on feminism. This slowly but steadily developed into a more explicitly radical ideology and I read new books, and learned new things, but those all just piled onto all the other books I had already read, building upon an existing foundation rather than creating a new one.
This is likely indicative of my own deep-seated faults: racism, misogyny, a lack of appreciation for intersectionality, various other phobias and –isms and blind spots and ignorances. It may also be a result of my tunnel-vision bibliophilia, and how my deep love for books sometimes keeps me from seeing their faults. It’s probably all of those things together. I’m not sure if I should be grateful for these new insights or not. On the one hand, they are undeniably valuable, and will enable me to be a more critical reader, with a keener eye towards the issues in the so-called classics. On the other hand, I love them less, like finding out that your best friend is anti-choice or goes to MichFest. So for now, if you need me, I’ll be curled up with a paperback copy of “Giovanni’s Room.”