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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 16, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Badly Read Books, Spenser, One-Read, Airlines

I love books on tape -- when it's a good book, and when it's well performed.

When you listen to book after book that is smoothly and clearly and intelligently read -- and, in the case of fiction, well-acted, too -- it's easy to take it for granted.

Then you bump into a book that is performed by a reader with weird quirks and you realize -- oh, this is hard, and the good readers deserve a lot more credit than we give them.

I've heard performances so brilliant that it made me look for more work by that reader. That's how I became aware of Kevin Spacey -- before I ever saw him in a movie and long before he won his Oscar, I heard him read a rather ordinary thriller. His performance made it wonderful.

Same thing with Will Patton. He doesn't have much charisma on the screen -- he's better at being scary than beloved -- but when he reads a book, he grabs you and sucks you into the story and makes it unforgettable. It helps that I heard him read Robert McCammon's brilliant Gone South and A Boy's Life, the quintessential southern gothic novels of our time -- but Patton's reading is so brilliant that his audio performance remains the best way to read those masterpieces.

These days, though, I'm going through audiobooks at a pretty good clip -- when you have a three-hour commute each way, you have plenty of time for listening.

I picked up Will Durant's Heroes of History, read by Grover Gardner. The cover blurb said that Gardner had been named by AudioFile magazine as a "Voice of the Century." Really? What century?

He doesn't read, he intones. It's as if someone told him that mellifluousness were the purpose of reading -- make your tone smooth and beautiful, and you're a "good reader" with a "great voice."

Wrong. What we get is a voice that sounds like it's in love with itself. The tone is supercilious, condescending, often effeminate in ways that fight with the text. The kind of voice that makes you want to slap the speaker. Not hard, because you don't want him to cry. You just want him to read like a human.

It doesn't help that Heroes of History is a book that already has problems of its own. Durant never finished it, really, and it had a confusing purpose. The idea was to distill from his massive Story of Civilization a sort of Great Man overview of human history. And at first the book does this -- with all the shallowness that this would imply.

It was fine when he was dealing with topics about which I know little -- I found his accounts of Confucius and Buddha, for instance, to be quite interesting.

But when he got to Jesus, I realized that he was working only from secondary sources, and while he sometimes came to his own iconoclastic conclusions, he was working from a poor foundation -- he bought whole the assumptions of scholars who had no basis for their own consensus except their arrogant assumption that they knew more about Jesus than the earliest texts.

In effect, what I learned was that the more I knew about the subject, the less reliable Durant was.

Combine that with extremely annoying performance of the reader, and I almost gave up on the book.

That would have been too bad. Because well into the book, he seems to give up on the original concept, and instead of dealing with Great Men, he deals with Great Epochs.

So when he presents the string of great Roman Emperors from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius (whom he greatly admires), the story became interesting again.

Then he plunges into a history of Catholicism that masquerades as accounts of the Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance, and the German Reformation. He certainly presents Great Men, but mostly he presents a fascinating portrait of a period. It isn't the isolated "heroes," but rather the way they fit together, often at cross purposes, that makes the story interesting.

His treatment of Luther, for instance, is complex -- but it is not a biography. He doesn't try to reconcile or explain Luther's revolutionary courage and reactionary cruelty. He simply tells us that Luther did what he did -- and then shows how Luther interrelated with other heroes.

In other words, this book does a very good job of providing us with a context. Once you get past the shallow bits and Durant begins to dig into his epochs and make the connections that are his hallmark as a redactor of history.

By the end, I felt that it was worth the pain of listening to Mr. Annoying Voice.

But the very next book I put into my car cd player showed me that Grover Gardner is not the worst reader in the world.

I was interested for some time in reading Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency George Washington, and I thought that the obvious best way to read it was to listen to it during my commute to Southern Virginia University.

But guess what? Nelson Runger, who reads the book, apparently thinks he's reading to deaf people. Each ... word ... is ... sharply ... separated ... from ... every ... other. Worse yet, even within words, the syllables have little hesitations.

It's as if each syllable is a new word, and each word is a new paragraph.

"No," "it's" "as" "if" "each" "word" "were" "in" "a" "sep-a-rate" "set" "of" "quo-ta-tion" "marks." The words all sound as if the author didn't really mean them, so they are set off from the other words and emphasized.

Not only does this approach make the sentences meaningless -- it also slows down the pace of the book. It's not ponderous, it's glacial -- and, more to the point, maddening. Like listening to a kindergartner sounding out War and Peace.

The thought of listening to this reader for hours on end was too horrible. If I didn't fall asleep on the road, I could picture myself deliberately driving my car into a bridge abutment just to get him to shut up.

So, to save my life, I took the cds out of my car.

I can't even imagine donating this cd set to a library or giving it to a used book store. Why should anyone else be tormented by such an awful reading?

What I wonder is: Wasn't anybody listening to these guys read? Couldn't a producer say, "Mr. Gardner, could you perhaps read as if you weren't listening to yourself and smiling at the beauty of your own voice?" Or perhaps, "Mr. Runger, you can read this book in complete sentences, the way people actually speak English. You don't have to separate the syllables from each other like this."

It makes me feel all the more gratitude and respect for those readers who know what they're doing -- who sound as if a real person had written these words, and they were being read by English-speaking readers.

Like, for instance, Byron York's The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. Usually, when an author reads his own book, the result is awful -- performing as a reader takes a skill set that few authors have.

But it happens that Byron York is quite relaxed and natural, and so the book is eminently listenable. Not that he's ready to start reading other people's books -- he's not a pro. He's no Jim Dale or Scott Brick or Stefan Rudnicki or Will Patton or Kevin Spacey.

He is, however, the guy who lived through the experiences he tells about in the book, so that hearing it in his own voice gives it a kind of authority that no professional reader can bring.

From the title, you might think this is a conservative diatribe against the Left. And ... well, it kind of sort of is. But you'll get a better idea of what the book is when you realize that the title is a reference to a the half-joking way members of the "left wing conspiracy" referred to themselves. The term, in other words, was coined by Democrats, who conceived of themselves as responding to the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton invented in order to explain her husband's troubles (never mind that all the serious allegations made against him turned out to be true).

In other words, having convinced themselves that there must be a right-wing conspiracy against them, certain key figures on the Left decided to counter that conspiracy by creating a real one.

What York documents is a deliberate and systematic pattern of flouting campaign reform laws in order to flow huge amounts of money into the campaign to destroy George W. Bush during the 2004 election. Millions of dollars were raised and spent in deliberate and obvious violation of the law -- in full knowledge that the violators could not possibly be prosecuted until after the election. In which case they would either have won, and therefore didn't expect anything to happen to them, or they would have lost, in which case they believed the Gestapo would hunt them down and kill them.

No, they didn't believe that at all. They knew perfectly well that their inflated hate-speech against George W. Bush was a crock (well, everyone but Howard Dean knew it), but they also knew that if Bush won the election, he was not in fact a vindictive man and would do as he did after the Clintonistas trashed the White House -- he would tell his friends to forget about it and move forward.

Which is what he did. They got away with it.

But not completely. Because Byron York documented it and reported it in this book. He is not out to destroy his partisan enemies -- he is quite calm, actually. One could easily come away from this book with the idea, not that these law-flouters should be prosecuted, but rather that campaign laws like the ones we have right now are going to be broken constantly, and money will go where it goes and have whatever influence it has.

The most visible members of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy emerge as rather pathetic -- Al Franken is merely ignorant of history, a dupe; and while Michael Moore is a cynical self-promoter, he only preached to the choir and energized his opposition. But others -- the real players -- will be back again, with more money and fewer scruples, and we need to have an idea of who they are and what they're up to.

The hilarious thing is that Tom DeLay is being prosecuted for mere association, while many of the people named in The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy have taken direct and deliberately illegal actions themselves and no one is prosecuting them.

If nothing else, reading this book (or listening to it) will help you put Tom DeLay into context. The ominous "charges" laid against him amount to little more than the assumption that because the Left doesn't like him, he must be doing something illegal. Even if he actually did all the things his partisan prosecutor accuses him of, it's small change compared to the things that were done by the Left to try to distort and manipulate the political process in the last election.

It's a regular pattern in politics -- the side that cheats always accuses their opponents, without evidence, of doing exactly what they accusers are doing themselves. You know what I'm talking about -- the guy who always assumes other people are trying to cheat him is probably a cheater.

Those who say, "What does it matter? Everyone cheats," are missing the point. Not everyone cheats; and right now, in American politics, only one team is marching in absolute lockstep, doing whatever it takes, regardless of truth or fairness or law, to try to seize power. Only one side borks or filibusters judicial nominees, or demands that they commit themselves on ideological issues; only one side nakedly tries to steal elections (while accusing the other side of cheating); only one side keeps rewriting the rule book while declining to follow any of the new rules. And they will only stop when enough of the American public realizes what they're doing and stops believing them.

That's why the title of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy's title is so unfortunate. It will probably only be read by people on the Right, who hardly need to be told again how maddeningly cavalier the Left is about truth and law. People in the vast middle ground of American politics will avoid this book as just another partisan diatribe. Too bad. This is actually the book that middle-of-the-roaders are looking for: One that raises serious questions and documents the information it presents.

*

Robert B. Parker has come out with another Spenser novel, School Days, and this is one of the best. Some of the recent books have felt so clipped and Hemingwayesque that they began to feel almost ... well, lazy. As if Parker had decided that he was so minimalist he didn't actually have to write whole novels anymore, just iconic outlines.

This is the whole book.

And it's rather daring. Parker does not dip into his normal bag of tricks here. Not once does Hawk appear in this story. Susan is off at a convention in South Carolina and while Spenser remains faithful to her, it isn't always easy.

And Spenser is overconfident. He thinks that he can settle things with violence, but underestimates his opponents' irrational pride. People who trusted him end up getting hurt. In the end, what we find isn't so much a solution as a tragedy. And it's a tragedy in which the hero doesn't really seem to have learned all the lessons that the reader learns. He is what he is. He will make mistakes that other people pay for. Yet at the same time, you know you want more people in the world who are like him -- dogged and brave in pursuit of the truth, even when the truth turns out to be less than satisfying; even when real justice remains permanently out of reach.

It's one of the best and saddest mystery novels I've ever read.

*

Recently I had a chance to go to Columbia, Missouri, for their One-Read program -- their version of the one-city-one-book program that is spreading around the country.

They are not the only cities doing well with this program, but I saw them do some things that made it far more successful than many.

First, they let ordinary people vote on the book titles -- so the books chosen for the program aren't medicinal, they actually have a chance of being highly entertaining.

Second, one of the sparkplugs of the program is a local radio personality who actually reads books constantly and talks about them on the air, not in some arty way, but with his feet on the ground. He has a large and committed audience, and when he recommends a book, it gets read.

Third, the public library system knows how to get the word out and does it, putting all their resources behind the program.

Fourth, the mayor of the city takes part in the program -- not at the ribbon-cutting level, but by leading one of the many discussion groups on the book himself. So ordinary citizens can come and sit down with the mayor and discuss literature with him.

Think about that: The people get to vote in order to decide on a book that they mayor then reads and talks about. He doesn't force a book on them, they force a book on him!

That smacks of democracy. Surely somebody will find a way to stamp it out. But in Columbia, they haven't yet ...

The result is that people get the idea that this book-reading thing isn't just a nebulous "good idea" that the powers-on-high are bestowing upon their citizens, but something they actually care about and take part in themselves. This gives the One-Read program such prestige that a far higher percentage of citizens than usual actually take part in it.

Besides having a chance to meet and talk with people like these, which would have been reward enough, my wife and I also had the chance to see a downtown that hasn't been killed yet. No, it's not perfect -- there's no downtown grocery right now, and there's no chance of a living downtown without one -- but the banks and office buildings have not yet destroyed all the shopping streets, and there are stores that aren't duplicates of what the shopping malls contain.

In fact, one of the shops, Bluestem Missouri Crafts is one of the great gallery shops in America. Most of the time, such shops are collections of knickknacks with, now and then, something worth considering. Bluestem (at 13 So. Ninth St.) has nothing that isn't a pleasure to consider.

And just around the corner is Poppy, a little art boutique that had its own charms. Two stores like this in the same small downtown? We only wished we could have stayed longer.

If you ever find yourself driving along I-70 in Missouri, don't figure you have to make it all the way from St. Louis to Kansas City. Go a few miles south of the freeway and give yourself a few hours in Columbia.

*

But don't try to fly there directly. Towns of 84,000 people don't always get commercial airports.

Heck, if we didn't have High Point (91,543) and Winston-Salem (190,299) in close proximity to us, do you think Greensboro (229,110) would have the incredibly good schedule of flights that we have?

And yet you still drive more than an hour to Raleigh to take advantage of those cheap fares on those miserable cattle-car airlines....

Well, airports are like muscles. Use 'em or lose 'em. If we lose both USAirways and Delta -- which is not impossible -- you'd have to drive to Raleigh or Charlotte every time, for almost every flight.

It's time for the federal government to even the playing field. In the days when the federal government regulated airlines, we were badly served, and deregulation allowed the creation of the far more efficient hub system.

But the old airlines are still stuck with the huge, bloated pension plans that could only thrive during the period of regulation. With deregulation, the federal government did nothing to remove or ease or equalize this huge burden. The result is that lousy little startup airlines and "skim the cream" -- operate on the most profitable, busy routes, charging less because they don't have to fund those huge pension plans.

Thus the old airlines can only compete by serving smaller cities that the skimmers ignore. But they have to charge higher fares for those feeder routes, because they can't make the money on the low-price major routes.

America will not be well-served if the skimmers drive the real full-service airlines out of business. We would, in fact, be far better served if the prices on all routes were more in line with actual costs.

There are hard-core free-market capitalists who scream at any thought of the federal government "interfering," but let's face it -- this is a situation created largely by government. Sure, there's been mismanagement and the unions bear their share of the blame, but the current problems were born in the era of regulation, and government changed the playing field without compensating the players who had committed to the old rules.

I'm not talking about a reimposition of regulation -- that would be a very bad idea. I am suggesting that there has to be a better way than the present one, in which the only way to remove that pension burden is for the old airlines to go permanently out of business. What a waste that would be!

And how unpleasant for those of us who like to know we have an actual assigned seat without having to arrive early at the airport -- especially when it's an airport seventy-five miles away, because the airlines have all abandoned our city.

The Chrysler bailout a generation ago was a good thing for all of us. It was Chrysler that went on to bring us the minivan, which replaced the station wagon with a far superior vehicle.

And there is no chance that American travel would be "better" for losing the beleaguered old airlines. Bad management should not be rewarded -- but the "punishment" shouldn't consist of depriving the public of genuinely competitive choices among airlines flying out of local airports.


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