Late last night, I finished reading Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton. Or should I say "reading"? I'll come back to this question . . .
I couldn't resist, following my enraptured reading of Langston Hughes's bio, taking the chance to dig right into another literary biography. (One of my poet-friends calls them "crack cocaine," agreeing with me that they are totally addictive.) I was indeed fascinated, once again, with learning how a person came to understand herself to be a writer, how she gathered the tools she needed to do that work, how she gained access to a public and created an audience for her writing. Wharton's life is particularly interesting, on this point, because she received no formal education -- she was a total autodidact. But unlike with my experience reading about Hughes, I'm sad to say, that the more I learned about Wharton's story, the less I liked her -- or sympathized with her -- as a person. Her writing still stands firm in its place of honor among my personal pantheon. If there is one novel everyone should read in his/her lifetime (well, actually, there are several, but still . . . ), it is The House of Mirth. But, in terms of Wharton the person, I found myself at the end of the bio feeling that while there were certain things I could admire about her (e.g., her determination, her philanthropic work during WWI, her desire and ability to write books that would be both taken seriously and wildly popular), I wouldn't have wanted to know her. She was born into old NY society, as most of her readers know, and she never lost the sense of entitlement that came with such privilege, even as she critiqued some of the hypocrisies of that society in her fiction.
I've had similar experiences before, of course -- where my reading about or, with contemporary writers, meeting the author of a book I love forces me to draw that boldface line between my feelings about the work and my feelings about the person who created it. I can do it -- draw that line and maintain both the passion, on one side, and the distaste, on the other -- quite well. But it still makes me sad, a little bit. Do any of you have similar experiences -- and does it affect you the same way or differently?
To return to the question I raised at the beginning of this blog entry, as you probably realized -- given the title of my post -- I actually listened to this book, rather than reading it with my own eyes. I enjoyed the audio aspect and have before, though only on long cross-country drives prior to this. I'm trying to decide now whether to invest in additional audiobooks or not. I commute to work by subway/train, rather than by car, so it is often possible for me to read a regular book when I'm en route. But it was nice not to have to tote that extra weight in my bag or clutch the book one-handed as I cling to the subway pole (when I'm not lucky enough to get a seat). On the other hand, I feel less in possession of the audiobook than a hard copy, in which I can return to exactly the passage I want, or add marginalia, or look up a date, or check out the photos, etc., etc. I got the Wharton audiobook free, as a trial package from a company that sells such downloads. And in the past, I rented the audiobooks for my long drives. But I can't decide whether I want to buy audiobooks on a regular basis -- and to buy works that are not random "best-sellers" used simply to pass the time as I'm going through downstate Illinois (for example!), but rather the kinds of works that would normally become a part of my cherished library. What say ye? Does anyone want to make the case for or against audiobooks?