Some years ago, when I was working at a different church, I had a commute that took about 45 minutes each way.
At first, I listened to National Public Radio as I drove back and forth. I like music, but when I am driving by myself, I prefer something that engages my mind more than music does. I used to listen to a couple of Philly talk stations, but over the years talk radio has become so contentious that I could not enjoy it. I found Howard Stern utterly repellant, and sports radio talk wearisome. So I usually listened to National Public Radio, because I enjoyed listening to interviews with musicians or authors or people in the news, and to conversations that are always far more civilized chat than the raucous pot-stirring that is most talk radio.
But over time, that palled as well. It was too random–I might or might not be interested in a given person or topic. And, of course, the down side to be too terribly interested is that I had to shut the radio off when I got where I was going, which could be frustrating. I needed something that I could control.
Which how I arrived at books on tape.
At first I got a lot of Teaching Company courses. It was a wonderful way to learn more about Western philosophy, or St. Augustine, or medieval history or theology. But after awhile, I began running out of courses. And I had to admit that as steady diet it was sometimes a little dry. So I bought some novel tapes–all of Jane Austen, lots of P.G. Wodehouse, all of Tolkien, among others. But that was getting a bit pricey. And I enjoy listening to favourite books over again, but not over and over and OVER again.
That was when I discovered Recorded Books. For a monthly fee that was comparable to the price of buying one tape, I could rent four at a time, and send them back as I was done–postage is free–so that I had a constant supply of new tapes coming. Since I began doing this I have â€œreadâ€ well over 100 books, with great enjoyment.
It is astounding to me how many people look with disdain on the reading of books on tape–like it is some kind of intellectual cheat. But who reads to impress other people, or even to impress oneself? I read for pleasure, and it doesnâ€™t matter in the least to me how I get that pleasure–eyes or ears, it is all one to me. Or it was.
But now, gradually, I have come to realize what an unrepeatable joy it is to listen to a superb reader bring a book to life. I am in the 8th or 9th book of Patrick O’Brianâ€™s marvelous Aubrey-Maturin novels, and the reader, Patrick Tull, has me so immersed in the world of the Napoleonic era, and life in the Royal Navy of the early 19th century that it is sometimes hard to turn off my car. The books are wonderfully written–I would have loved them as novels if I had happened to have encountered them that way, but I have never read any of them, as I could not possibly do justice to them in my own mind compared to what Patrick Tull can do.
Tull, who was born in 1941, died some four or five years ago–fortunately after finishing the reading of all 21 of the books in the series, as O’Brian died in 2003. Tull was a rather round man, not ugly, but not very handsome, and his acting career was fairly limited in its successes–steady work, but small parts and character roles mostly. I am sure most people have never heard of him. But he can inhabit any character like a chameleon, and had a marvelous ear for any British dialect–I gave my mother a tape of him reading How Green Was My Valley, and she thought he had to have been Welsh–“He sounds just like my grandfather!â€
In the Aubrey-Maturin books Tull has a much more challenging task than simply maintain one accent, as he had to switch back and forth from a British accent to an Irish one just to do a conversation between Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, the shipâ€™s surgeon. Add a character with a West Country accent, an American, and a Frenchman, and someone from Belfast, and hear his quick transitions from one accent to the next, with never a foot put wrong–it is remarkable. And rivetting.
As I say, you may not have heard of him, but in the audio world he is regarded as one of the Voices of the Century. (If you have access to a computer, go to the Wikipedia article about him and click the You Tube link in the footnotes to get a taste of how he does it inÂ a public reading of a small segment of one of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, The Reverse of the Medal.)
Unknown to most of the world–and yet a truly great genius. You could think it was a sad thing, but it really is not. Tull lived with evident gusto, won acclaim in his own little corner of the world,Â did not have to endure the burden of celebrity, and his work lives on the 104 books he recorded. As long as people are reading Patrick Oâ€™Brian–and I think that will be always–Patrick Tullâ€™s marvelous interpretation will also be heard. Great fame may have escaped him, but nothing of importance did: he used his gifts and talents to the fullest of his abilities. And I think that is what God hopes for each of us. What more can you ask?