One of my favorite childhood memories was "The Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Every day, my mother would gather me up, plop me down onto the couch and read a chapter or two.
The book focuses on the misadventures of four children, all orphaned, who live in an abandoned boxcar. Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny drink out of chipped tea cups and sleep on beds of pine needles. To my four-year-old brain, nothing could have been more exciting.
At night, I would dream of joining this fictional family and living in that boxcar, far away from everything that was familiar and common. Listening to the words my mother spoke made me want to read too, and so I begged to learn.
Even then, I preferred books without pictures -- my imagination was fertile enough to fill in the blanks between the words. I wanted to find Narnia. A chocolate factory. A room with an ominous, never-ending heartbeat.
But it wasn't just the amazing stories that hooked me. It was the experience of hearing the words read aloud. Once I had mastered the skill of literacy, I read to my brother, my cousins, even my stuffed animals.
THE FINEST ENTERTAINMENT
I still enjoy this activity. At least twice a week, I attend a book reading, just to hear the words float through the air. I close my eyes and create the story inside my head.
Recently, I attended The Last Angel Tour, a charity reading to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I sat in St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, surrounded by an audience of young professionals, authors and goths, and listened to literary god Neil Gaiman do a reading.
Sure it was fun supporting such a worthy cause, but the reading itself was an amazing event. Gaiman has a real gift for oration, particularly when performing his own short stories and poetry. Listening to him, I was easily transported to a house with wolves in the walls, on a New York cab ride with a jinni at the wheel and into a pub in Innsmouth sharing my first pint with two Lovecraftian strangers.
A TRAVELING COMPANION
When I used to take extended trips by car, I always brought along a couple of audio books. Unlike the radio, audio books command attention. They pull you into the story and the miles just race on by.
On the ride from Florida to New York last spring, my friend Frank and I took turns at the wheel of the big, yellow U-Haul. Whoever sat in the passenger seat was more than just the navigator -- they were in charge of reading aloud the latest Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. More than 1,000 miles later, we closed the book, delighted and satisfied.
The restaurant chain, Cracker Barrel, jumped on this habit and catered to it. Each of its restaurants offer a rack of audio books that can be "borrowed." When you rent one, the company also gives out a map of the United States with markers showing where all the other Cracker Barrels can be found. Rent audio books at one restaurant and drop 'em off at another. Talk about convenience.
READ THE INTERNET
Well, that convenience has now been taken one step further. The Website, Audible.com, offers the ability to download interviews, articles, comedy sketches, speeches and entire novels. For a nominal fee, this site provides readings of the latest bestsellers by Anne Rice, Steve Martin and Richard North Patterson. You can download a streaming file of commentary by Dennis Miller or an interview with Robin Williams and Harlan Ellison. It's fantastic!
Want to scare the kiddies this Halloween? Then gather them around the computer screen, turn out the lights and listen to the voices of Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone read Edgar Allan Poe. Or give them a taste of the past by playing an audio file of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy reading science fiction classics.
The beauty of the spoken word is truly indescribable. It must be experienced.
I urge you to find out for yourself. Download a file off the Internet. Go on a long drive and experience an audio book. Attend an author's reading at a local bookstore. Or better yet, grab a book and read it to some children. You too could affect their entire lives with the effort.