It was like reconnecting with an old friend, one who was wiser and more experienced but also jaded and cynical. Years ago, I had tired of his sour observations on our society and culture, but I still treasured memories of his sometimes violent and often sexy adventures. I’m talking about Travis McGee, the beach bum hero of more than two dozen novels by John D. MacDonald.
Louise, the librarian I married, brought McGee back to life for me in an audio CD of MacDonald’s first McGee book, The Deep Blue Good-by. On a recent lengthy car trip we listened to the whole 6.5 hours of the audiobook, which was dazzlingly read by Robert Petkoff. It is the first of a series of McGee novels being reborn in sound by Brilliance Audio, a Michigan firm. Petkoff performed the novel with authentic and distinct voices for each character, every one true to its gender.
Why was hearing this novel come to life such a revelation? Reading from the printed page was always more difficult for me than getting my entertainment and information by other means. It wasn’t my eyesight that caused the problem then, although it is a bit blurred now as I approach 80. Even as an adolescent, I found the reading process more work than watching or listening. Frequently, the translation of a print novel as a movie made it more fun and less work. Even if some of the fidelity was lost, I found it to be far more accessible. My favorite example was Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Fielding was given to long asides, “And now dear reader…,” that got in the way of the fun. John Osborne’s screenplay told the story much faster but with as much color and spirit, thanks to Albert Finney’s portrayal of rapscallion Tom.
This view has not always been popular with my colleagues, some of whom value curling up with a book above all else. They let the author’s words and their own mind’s eye and ears describe the characters and scenery. I have occasionally experienced that joy, sometimes with Travis McGee, Tom Jones, and even Herman Melville and Henry James. It was in print that I fell in love with Sara Paretsky’s PI V.I. Warshawski. But the admission that reading is often tiresome seems taboo in our profession.
The success of moving a good book to another medium depends hugely on the quality of the translation, editing, direction, and performers. The publisher made a great choice having Petkoff read MacDonald. It took a team of geniuses to translate Tom Jones into a movie. The medium itself helps make the translation a success, too.
Together, these factors can make a difficult work or writer more comprehensible to those who, like me, find reading harder. While the translation sometimes wrecks our personal versions of a place or character, done skillfully, the replacement in sound and/or pictures can sharpen and enrich our view.
I’m looking forward to more trips with Travis McGee. I would also love to revisit all the classics of my undergraduate days in new media. It would be fun to hear Yves Montand read Albert Camus’s The Plague or The Stranger. I wish Maurice Chevalier was still alive to read Andre Gide’s Symphony Pastoral.
I’ve come to believe that translations from print to sound enhance access to a work. You can listen while you are driving, walking, sometimes even when you are working. You can transport what were heavy paper volumes on discs, iPods, and laptops. You can still enjoy the book privately riding on a packed commuter train, or sipping an espresso in you favorite coffee hangout. You can carry all two dozen Travis McGee novels in your purse or pockets and pull them out when you have a moment. For us older folks, the new media allow us to increase the size of the type or picture and turn up the volume in our earphones, without intruding on the privacy of others.
For library users and librarians, the movement of old works into new media presents new opportunities for bringing easy access to entertainment and education to people old and young. This is another tool to improve and expand library service. That is, apologies to Marshall McLuhan, another media message.
John N. Berry III