Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 22, 2010

Parlez Français, друг?

I’m new to listening to books instead of reading. The Counselor started it, by getting us an informational series of CDs about the history of Western music(as in Western Civilization, not cowboy songs). Played those in the car during the commute. Enjoyed it so much that we started exploring the library’s large collection of similar series on a whole variety of subjects: language, history, literature, and so on. Enjoyed THAT so much that I gave up my subscription to XM radio, which had helped keep me sane on the San Diego Freeway for a couple of years.

THEN the Portland Powell’s Pair, Doe-Moe, generously shared with us some actual books on CD that they had finished with. I was skeptical. I’m always a slow adopter of new modes of doing things, and I had been looking at words on a printed page for a long, long time. I didn’t think I’d take to it. A revelation. Loved ’em. Thanks, kids!

So now I’m a good ways into “Anna Karenina” on the morning and evening drives. It’s another of those icons of literature that I’ve dodged, and I figured there was something of an appropriate balance, having “A la recherche” going at home while Tolstoy plays in the car.

I’ve bumped up against a limitation of mine, though. Most of Tolstoy’s characters are from the upper classes, which meant, in that culture, that they’re speaking French to one another in polite society. Tolstoy did write most of the dialogue in Russian, which translates into English, but he occasionally threw in phrases in French, just to remind us readers that we’re supposed to be imagining ALL of that dialogue in French. Of course, the translator left those phrases in French in the audio version I have.

Now, I have a limited grasp of written French, and there are usually enough cognates with Latin or Spanish for words I don’t actually recognize that I can piece together most of a written French phrase IF I can see it on a page and study it. Not so easy to listen to a French sentence, though. That’s an entirely different mental exercise, and requires that one know the vocabulary and understand enough of the grammar to find those elusive subjects and verbs as they flash past one’s ears. Not my forte, you might say.

It’s a minor thing. Usually Tolstoy gives us plenty of context for the sentences, and he doesn’t deliver any key plot development en francais, so it really is just another minor humbling experience, and another prod to maybe bone up on the ol’ French some day.

I encourage you to try listening to something on audio if you have not done it. It’s fun. And, sounding our National Library Month theme once again, I am betting that you’ll be impressed at what your library has on those shelves labeled “Books on CD” and “Books on Tape.” Yes, my car still has a tape player and I’ve had good luck with that format, too. Check ’em out.

(That word in Cyrillic letters in the title is what Babel Fish says is Russian for “friend.” I have a hard enough time with other languages in Roman type, so I have to take their “word” for it!)



  1. I’m always impressed when someone manages to throw a little Cyrillic into a piece. And here I’ve never even been to Cyril. *sigh*


  2. Been there? I don’t even know Cyril.

    Anyway, interesting you mention listening to books right now at the very time I am giving it a shot for the first time. Coincidence, oh I dunno, maybe just interesting. But I believe the experience is impressing me more with Mr Frye’s rendition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (no, never read it) than with the book itself. I sorta want to read it next just to see which I prefer.


  3. Anyone else find that listening to a book on tape/cd is too slow?

    I tried it for a few chapters. Had to get the book in order to read faster than someone can talk.


    • Agreed. But they read faster than I would read while driving the car. I probably won’t do much non-car listening. There are some really good readers. Tony Roberts read the audio version of “Cat’s Cradle,” and it was more of a performance than a reading. Really awesome job with giving each character’s dialogue an individual identity!


  4. I don’t read too fast, but I have noticed the audio tapes are slow. If the voice is not making it entertaining to somewhat compensate for the slow pace, then I sure see Nancy’s point. But I do not expect to ever read all the books I’d like to read, so using the drive-time to listen is a great approach, at least here on only my third audio book so far it seems to be so.

    I think if it is a favorite author or maybe a first read of a book by a highly regarded author, I’d read the book.


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