Commuting: Sound for Text

This is the second year that I’ve been working as a lecturer at The University of Newcastle while residing in Sydney…or rather, an outer suburb of Sydney. The first year, I managed to condense my teaching to two or three days in a row per week, and I would catch a train up north (about 2 hours and 45 minutes to campus), stay over with two friends in their apartment for one to two nights a week, and then head back down. The friends, however, moved to Sydney at the beginning of this year, and being really tired of the very long commute, my husband Justin and I moved to a Sydney suburb further north, which resulted in a shorter commute of an hour and a half (by car…and far enough up north that I don’t have to deal with traffic) for me and an hour’s commute by (crowded) train for Justin, who works at the University of Sydney. I like to joke that we moved so that we both now have equally hellish commutes.

In any case, commuting by car meant I had to make some changes. On the train, I could do work, and I frequently used the time to read articles for research, read the literary texts I was teaching in class, or simply write on my laptop. I contemplated doing the same thing while driving, but I get headaches when I read the car. Oh, yes: it also seemed rather dangerous. But even though the car undoubtedly has its perks (e.g., not having to deal with the inefficiencies of the New South Wales public transport system; not having to be disgusted at the fact that some passengers apparently think it acceptable to exit the train after leaving the remains of their Hungry Jack’s meal all over the seats), it has its drawbacks (the amount of gas/petrol it uses and the fact that one has to pay full attention while driving). And the thought of having to spend 3 hours each commuting day not doing anything ‘productive’ annoyed me to no end. I could be writing or preparing for class! I could be knitting sweaters for other people’s dogs, which I don’t do anyway, but might do if I had those three hours! I could be learning ballet, which I probably wouldn’t, but you never know! I could be participating in important conference calls with the new pope! You get the idea.

To commute: to travel between where one lives to where one works. To commute: also, to exchange something for another thing. One initiated another: I decided to exchange the written word for sound for the sake of ‘getting things done’ on the drive up, got myself a subscription to Audible, and began listening to audio books.

I certainly had considered audiobooks before, but only to dismiss them as a cop-out from ‘actual’ reading. I don’t know if it’s a type of snobbery that comes with being a literary academic, but to me it had always been of paramount importance to be able to read a text for one’s own self, to have the text in all its virgin purity before one, unmarked, and with pencil in hand, proceed to stake my claims, underlining, circling, adding commentary and cross-references. Even as an undergrad, when buying used books, I turned up my nose at the ones that had too much highlighting or underlines. I didn’t want to be influenced by someone else’s interpretations. I took and take great pride in reading texts ‘for myself’, and even in reading a text a second or third time and seeing what my self three years ago, five years ago, ten years ago, thought about a book in comparison to what my present self thinks about it now. How has my focus shifted? What new aspects of a poem or novel or story or essay interest me now?

As a ‘good’ postcolonialist, I know I should be on my guard against privileging print over orality, text-based cultures over ones in which histories and stories were passed down through spoken word. But is privileging a text read over a text read by someone else for me a similar kind of snobbery? Perhaps it is, in some way. What it is, certainly, is a fear of losing control of interpretive agency. But there is a pleasant aspect of losing control as well, as I’ve found. Having books I’ve always been meaning to get to be read to me, like they were when I was a child lolling lazily on a sofa in my father’s lap as he did the appropriate ‘voices’ for each character. I don’t know if this is something else I should be on my guard against. But I do like how I finally have time to do ‘fun’ reading–the reading I never get to do at the end the day because my eyes are so tired from looking at print for a living.

This is what I’ve read so far:

The Kite Runner

Gulliver’s Travels

The Old Man and the Sea

Nicholas Nickleby

The White Tiger

and currently, River of Smoke

I suppose I don’t mind being lazy for this stage of my life.


One Comment

  1. I never got into audio books either, but for the move out to MN (and probably for the move back in a few weeks…) I decided to just go for it. I’ve got to say, it was a fun way to finally get through “Space Vikings”…

    I think that for me the resistance to audio books was largely a result of the audio books my parents would play on our long car trips as a kid–usually genres that I didn’t normally read (meaning, anything besides sci-fi and fantasy), and usually being played at the same time that I was trying to read one of my own books. I would get sucked into the story anyway, which was frustrating and satisfying at the same time…

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