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My father grew up poor, hitting his formative years during the great depression.  Most of his energy went into getting away from that poor place and staying there.  He did it by working his way through college and applying himself diligently to things he had trouble with, like scientific German.  Most of his choices were dictated by circumstance.

The only narrative he subscribed to was the one at the heart of the American dream– achieving success through good fortune and hard work.  He regarded all fiction as frivolous, from airport and beach books to Shakespeare and Tolstoy.  I suspect many men of his generation felt the same.

Naturally, I became an English major, taking up with every literary floozy that came along, from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Atlas Shrugged.”  It wasn’t long before I went hard core, attending poetry readings and filling notebooks with everything that came into my head. It was infatuation, not real dedication, that led me down the literary path.  I was the young man Garrison Keillor mocks so gently on “The Prairie Home Companion,” the one he sees in himself.

I have come to see that books are my escape and my refuge in unsettled times. I remain omnivorous, devouring books of all kinds, shapes and sizes, hardcovers, paperbacks and audio files.  I have yet to purchase an electronic reader, but I can see one in my future. It is the perfect format for expensive, expendable travel guides as well as a great device for airplane reading.

The books I read and the ones I download from Audible take me into different worlds and different times.  I love mysteries, and Donna Leon has escorted me back to Venice several times in the fine company of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Louise Penny has immersed me in the surprisingly complex life of a small village in the Eastern Townships of Quebec with charming Inspector Gamache. With Charles Todd I have travelled all over England at the end of World War I inside the troubled mind of a Scotland Yard inspector plagued with guilt, having had his best soldier shot for insubordination. Stieg Larsson has me hooked by the sexy and sexist, over-caffeinated and nicotine-addicted Swedes.  I can’t wait for the third book in the series.

During the past week, the fine voice of Simon Vance reading Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” has transported me back to Australia while I’ve been walking the circuit of East Campus of Duke University.  Set during the days of the first settlers, it conjures up a simple man whose desires lead him to the darkest places. He is one of the victims of the British impulse to banish the petty thieves of London to “terra nullus,” the continent of Australia.  The injustice affects him for life, of course.  But the aboriginals bear the brunt of the settlers’ fear, ignorance and firepower.  It is a brilliant book.

“The Wayfinders”, by Wade Davis, is a fascinating tour through a handful of aboriginal cultures around the world. Davis suggests that the extinction of cultures is as risky to the future of our species as the precipitous decline of plants and animals. The San people of the Kalahari have found extraordinary ways to survive without water; the Polynesians sail 10,000 kilometers without a sextant or compass and manage to find a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific ocean; the peoples of the Amazon rain forest harvest plants for medicine that we have yet to name.  The subtitle says it all:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

You can cosy up to a good book or take a bumpy ride, but it’s a great way to see and hear the world. And you don’t have to be an English major.

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Yesterday was a red letter day in more ways than one. The weather, first of all. Melbourne goes through more weather in an afternoon than Florida gets in a year. Take a look at the forecast on any given day and you are likely to see a dozen different predictions that would, in an ordinary place, be mutually exclusive. Heavy rain, sunshine, high winds, gentle breezes.

Cloudy with meatballs. On April fool’s day, you would expect the weather gods to have conjured up something strange and spectacular–lightning, thunder, hail, hurricanes, a snow storm or two. Instead, we got a wonderful day– a long day of late summer sun at its finest.

It was a perfect day for a ride but I’m attempting to condition body and brain to a workout routine, so I made my way to the gym instead. The one device that makes a workout (or dentist appointment or a long plane ride) tolerable is an Ipod or MP3 player loaded with good books.

For the last couple of weeks I have been listening to “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith. Its intensely human, argumentative, passionate, obnoxious, intelligent and idiotic characters made themselves at home in my brain. I worried about them, railed against them, cajoled them out of their self-destructive tendencies and helped them over their heartbreaks. All to no avail. The story was spun, after all, and it had to come to an end eventually. Yesterday, I bid them all farewell.

I do not, as a rule, learn very well from listening. Names go in one ear and out. I am absolutely hopeless with directions unless someone actually shows me a map. I have to see foreign words on a page or screen to have any chance of remembering them. But I did grow up on radio and I’m mesmerized by a well-told story on a speaker box. I’m a true Prairie Home Companion. I’ve been known to remain transfixed (in the driveway) at the end of a long automobile journey until the narrator of the audio tape has come to the end of the story and all is right with the world.

Listening to a book seems like the ideal way to take in narrative, no matter how long. We have been programmed, after all, to be in tune with the oral/aural transmission of stories. Audio books reach into us at a very deep level when we allow them time to settle in and entrance us with voice and words, setting, character and plot.

I download my books from Audible.com but there many classics available for free. I’m amazed to see that Zadie’s stunning debut novel is the fiftieth book in my audio library, which ranges from nail-biting mysteries like Karin Slaughter’s “Blindsighted,” to challenging non-fiction like Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” or encyclopedic works such as Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” The longest book in my library is Richard Russo’s “The Bridge of Sighs,” but I don’t mind long. Flying from Australia to anywhere takes a long time.

In addition to the author, of course, the narrator of an audio book gets to be a real magician. The actress, Barbara Rosenblat, is my all-time favourite. Whenever we had a road trip coming up in North America, I would head down to the library and stock up on Elizabeth Peters Egyptology mysteries. We loved Rosenblat’s marvelous evocation of Amelia Peabody and the rest of her eccentric family. This was back before the days of digital downloads.

In my quirky collection, the matching of voice and text on Sue Monk Kidd’s poignant “The Secret Life of Bees” seems absolutely perfect. Peter Carey’s “My Life as a Fake” and Ron McClarty’s “The Memory of Running” are runners-up. The two narrators of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” are brilliant enough to make you weep. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, I’m a big fan of books, audible and otherwise.

The weather, you’ll be happy to know, is back to normal. A shower or two, tending to rain periods, strong to gale force winds.  We got drenched on our afternoon walk.  All’s well in Melbourne.

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