Gilgamesh and the Erudite Driver

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Books (with the exception of the subspecies known as "textbooks," my kids would point out) are treasures. Considering the proximity of local libraries, the littering of our nation's strip malls with Barnes & Nobles, and the binary vastness of the digital domain, there are plenty of books from which to choose.

But what is truly a good book? My mom might pull out any number of cookbooks. My father might suggest a particular biography of Nathaniel Greene or Henry Knox. If you ask a History professor what his favorite book is, it's your fault.

My wife might prefer "The Art of Glass" or "Techniques of Kiln Formed Glass." That's her interest (the kiln fire safety portion is necessarily one of mine), but she has read many books that I've taken on her recommendation and with which I have been pleased. "Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card or "Battlefield Earth" by L. Ron Hubbard (yes, the guy who made up Scientology), are two. Whether more look to or around the Good Book for a good book is a topic for another day.

There's certainly enough recommendations amongst reviewers or friends that, within a desired genre, a good read can be found if one is willing to search and devote one's time. And I won't even go into the first hundred or more pages of not-so-good book before one truly discovers if, as a whole, it is pronounced good.

I could argue that the environment for reading is as critical as the content. A good book is much like a comfort food. While reading an escapist fare is certainly enjoyable, it does, in fact, matter whether one is ensconced on a couch (with accompanying blanket, pillow and beverage of choice) or in an airplane seat, shoulder to shoulder, between Mr. Stinky and Ms. Overlarge. Location, location, location...

Some favorite authors include JRR Tolkein, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Jordan, MC Beaton, Lawrence Block, Lillian Jackson Braun, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Randy Wayne White... Wait! Did I mention Janet Evanovich?

You betcha. They're uproariously funny. Here's the thing... I used to drive. A lot. At some point I went with my wife to the library, and decided to check out the selection of books on tape (now predominantly books on CD).

I began by testing the familiar. It turns out that many of those books that I did book reports on back in school (but never read...) are amazingly good. "Classics" by Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce are among the authors whose works I've now heard and enjoyed in unabridged format. I would even consider reading some of these authors now.

Otherwise, I like fiction, and, in particular, murder mysteries. There's some authors I'm familiar with; after all, it's hard not to have heard of John Grisham. But where does one start? With "A," of course. Beaton, Block, Braun... It seems have a hard time getting past "G" on the library shelf; there's murder aplenty.

The impact of the written word by a narrator (or more properly, performer) cannot be dismissed. Some narrators make the work unbearable. Eject disk. Listen to "Hotel California." Again. Others supplement it or lift it beyond the print to an aural art. If I were to read a MC Beaton (Hamish Macbeth series) or Tony Hillerman novel, it's fairly likely that I would put them quickly aside as, from a stylistic standpoint, subject-verb-direct object used repetitively becomes a bore. But, having listened to the narrator give voice to the characters, reading them in that "voice" gives the printed words a life that otherwise I would not have appreciated, and, I think, the "reading" which the author intended.

I knew nothing about Gilgamesh. Heard the name... never knew the context. But murdergilgamesh mysteries were in short supply from authors A-G, and there it was on the library shelf, another impediment to reaching the "H" section. It also had the benefit of being performed by the same person who handled the Tony Hillerman books, George Guidall. George Guidall could perform a telephone book and I would be perfectly entertained; he's that good. As it happens, Gilgamesh's literary style is similar to a telephone book, with the addition of verbs. Okay, it's a poem and recently rewritten for the modern era, but it was utterly enjoyable, a rousing epic tale spoken as if passed from one generation to the next by the wise man of the village.

Aside from an unreserved encouragement to give a listen to anything that Guidall performs, audio books have enriched my life. There are numerous books that I never would have taken the time to read which I've now had the pleasure of "reading" by ear. Others, like Gilgamesh, I never would have thought to pursue given all the time in the world.

I don't think audio books will replace "real" books; the digital age and the greening of the western world are sufficient threats for that. I can't discount that serious readers set aside time to devote to their books. It's their entertainment of choice. However, as interested as I may be in any number of things, I have ample amusements which compete for my time.

One thing is certain. When in travel mode and facing a the inevitability of songs-heard-too-many-times or laments-of-the-day on talk radio, a good (audio) book is a dear thing, indeed.

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