I have heard the western canon. I have not seen it, but its echoes live in my ears.
I have read maybe like, um, five books on the Modern Library list, but I have listened to nearly all of them on audiobook whilst hiking, traveling, trekking, night driving, and camping. Without the counterforce of human ingenuity humming in my ear as the great range of the Earth’s topography surges up with such terror-inducing majesty, something inside me would have ruptured.
I listen to audiobooks read by no-name character actors with rich voices. It started with the Harry Potter books—I could no longer stand the centurion tone of public radio broadcasts during my hour-long commute, so I started with something I wanted to know about but didn’t want to physically read. Hearing Jim Dale’s take on the scraggly voice of Hagrid and intone the authoritarian iciness of Ms. Umbridge, I discovered that I was really fucking on to something.
You need to be listening to books when you are in nature! That is what you need to be doing.
Listening to audiobooks seemed to erase time and tension. A grueling hour-long slog through 405 traffic became something to look forward to. Why not step it up? How about The Dubliners read by a bunch different of Irish actors—what lolling and hypnotic rhythm. The Dubliners is my most listened to audiobook: The resigned, melancholy delivery of Araby’s closing line, Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. Kills me every time!
Audiobooks are the height of literature and theater and I cannot think of a better venue to experience them than in nature. After I first listened to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while on a hike through the Waipo Valley in Hawaii, it has made reading in my living room impossible and somehow a disservice to the author.
I had a near religious experience listening to Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald while in Brazil. I never read (or listened to) Fitzgerald and thought an eight-mile hike in the Tijuca forest was good time to start. If you know Fitzgerald, then I don’t even need to tell you about the lusciousness of his prose. It synched perfectly with the thick, endless emerald canopy of the jungle; the erotic steaminess between Rosemary and Dick felt all the more heady while watching brick colored snakes belly-slither into the bramble.
There is a gap—a lethal one—between the raw landscape and a human being. The best way to put it, is how Denis Johnson put it in Tree of Smoke, when describing Alaska: “You’ve never seen a world like that. It belongs to the God who was God before the Bible … God before he woke up and saw himself. There is no forgiveness there. You make one tiny mistake and that landscape grinds you into a bloody smudge.” But there is something about the grandeur of literature that makes that gap feel a little smaller. Perhaps not something that could be scaled but something that could be understood. (Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke was the first audiobook I truly fell in love with. It’s read by Will Patton. I heard it walking down a crater in New Mexico. “Everything oxidized.”)
The Tijuca forest was pristine and thick when the Portuguese first landed in Brazil. Sugar and coffee plantations eventually chewed into the forest, and by the 1800s Tijuca was left withered and sick. Emperor Don “The Magnanimous” Pedro II ordered the forest to be replanted, by hand. It has grown back, resplendent.
There are steps carved into the forest’s highest point: a mountain peak that looks over the canopy, the Ipanema coastline and a few throbbing favelas. Three staircases were carved into the mountainside—no doubt on the backs of indigenous labor—so that Emperor Don could easily overlook the edge of his empire.
I reached the top of stairs, panting, right as Dick surveyed an old war-trench outside of Paris:
“See that little stream—we could walk it in two minutes, it took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.”
The serendipity of hearing this passage about the bloodiness and glory of empire right as I hit the summit of this hand-planted forest, it’s how I imagine the euphoria that grips people in a manic state. When the universe is speaking to them, hidden messages in the sea and their cereal. When literature and the landscape meet like this, I feel a touch of giddy delirium.
Now, reading literature is cool if you can swing it. I have a harder time. Partly it’s an issue of concentration—I’m at my most concentrated and absorbent when I’m doing something tactile. During a lecture, I must be writing or drawing or else I don’t quite hear all of what’s being said. Or rather, it sticks better, sinks in deeper, when I can associate what I’m hearing to something I can touch or feel.
The act of reading, the motionless it involves, how still everything has to feel so the words make sense, makes it too easy for my mind to jump, race, or drift.
The root cause of this could perhaps be diagnosed as a “learning disability” or something related to “mood,” but it really has more to do with Shakespeare in my case.
I was not a big “reader” in high school, I was more of a do-er: of boys, late nights, strange mayhem in parking lots. I didn’t make a lot of time for Jane Austen but I was a devoted drama student and I would compete annually in a fierce, bare knuckled, multi-county short-form Shakespeare competition between 86 Southern California schools. I started competing—Queen Gertrude monologues, 10-minute Macbeth scenes, a dynamic 4-person rendering of Othello—at age 11, continuing this all the way up to my senior year of high school. In the first phases of memorizing my lines, I would look to the first and last word of the lyric, trying to keep the pentameter.
For instance, for one my favorite roles, Katherine in Taming of the Shrew, I would copy the text a few times:
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty ….
Then to remember my lines I would write out: fie, brow, eyes, governor, and then try to fill in the gaps. I learned my lines this way—and totally fucking slayed at Shakespeare competition—but it started a bad habit I’ve never been able to break. Upon landing on the first word of a sentence my eye immediately jumps to the last word of a sentence. It also got me hooked on the idea that words exist in the whole body. None of these stanzas had any power until I was on my feet, gesticulating, and thrashing like a crazed Ophelia before the brook swallows her up.
When my eyes and brain have to do more than look at Page One—such as climb into a crater or trace the curvature of the Earth over the desert skyline—I can finally understand the power of literature. I could take a time-released stimulant to maybe counteract this, but I’ve found that having the surface of the world feel as though it was rushing up towards me works better.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a staff writer and reporter for The Intercept. She has worked as a labor organizer and has written extensively about unions, the justice system, feminism, books and other culture for the New York Times, Bookforum, The Awl, Atlantic Monthly, The Guardian, GQ, and many other publications.