In the olden days (ie about 20 years ago) there was that cosy image of curling up with a book in front of a fire but nowadays it’s much easier to turn on the central heating than dealing with coal and ashes and firelighters and there’s a guilt thing about taking time out of the day to read so most of my reading is done when I’m fighting sleep or probably should be asleep. That idyllic image might now be replaced with driving down the motorway warm and comfortable in the car while the wind and rain takes its revenge on the world outside and it doesn’t matter because I have an audio book playing and have the length of the journey to listen without guilt. When I listen to a good book it seems more vivid and the images stay with me longer than when I read. Which is strange because I have been an avid reader all my life and have never been much of a listener. Perhaps because one is necessarily in a more alert state while driving or perhaps because some of the work of interpretation has already been done by the actor who is reading the book. Second hand reading in a way.

I borrowed Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ audiobook from the library –all 25 CD’s- and from the first paragraph was drawn in to the world of Theodore Decker and the traumatic explosion in the Metropolitan museum in New York. Listening to snippets while driving to the supermarket or the studio or any of those short trips and then staying in the car even after getting there to hear the next bit. If you ever spy me in the carpark in Lidl just sitting there with the windows fogging up it’s ok, I’m probably not feeling suicidal or suffering from agoraphobia…



goldfinch“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch



I suspect the neighbours across the road think I have a phobia about going into my house and am secretly swigging gin in the car behind the fogged up windows to give me the courage to go inside.

I looked up what other people think of audio books and some people were of the opinion that it does not work for long books but I can tell you that it definitely works on the M9. Last week my daughter broke her ankle badly and ended up in hospital in Waterford for four days. That’s a three and a half hour approx. round trip every day. But what matter when you are in the middle of a good book as you cruise down the M9.  It’s a straight run all the way and you need only a minimum of attention to the road ahead as the other part of your mind follows the completely absorbing story of the crazy lives of these larger than life characters.

Out of the car and back in reality you maybe realise that the plot is not always credible but the world of the story is so well drawn around you that it doesn’t matter. That old suspension of disbelief; and to heck with the critics who complained about clichéd language and improbable plotlines. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half. And what better relief from the reality of hospitals and people in varying states of pain in the orthopaedic ward and your lovely daughter that you have to leave behind to the care of others.

It doesn’t work for every book- I remember some years ago ordering the full version of Ulysses on audio from the library, thinking that at last I might be able to get further than the first hundred pages but after persistent attempts- and I don’t give up easy- I had to admit defeat. I’d put the CD on at the beginning of a journey west and force myself to keep my attention on it and even go back on a track if my mind wandered. Next thing I’d be in Tullamore or crossing the Shannon and realise that I’d been thinking about my garden or ideas for images or when I had the car serviced last; and the last ten tracks had played out without hearing a word of them. Eventually I had to admit defeat and slunk back to the library with it because every time I saw it I felt guilty and intellectually inadequate…


When I listened to the last CD of ‘The Goldfinch’ there was that beautiful contemplation of life from the mouth of Boris and then something similar from Hobie before the last section with Theo’s reflection on life. I played that last part several times on one of those last journeys, with the freedom of knowing the end and the leisure to consider it as I went about other things.

“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

The American actor David Pittu reading ‘The Goldfinch’ is superb. I will buy the book because I want to be able to see it in words as well but as I read I will probably always hear the voice of Boris in the mixed up accent that David Pittu gave him which was a pleasure in itself to listen to.

Despite the temptation to blame the actor/reader for my failure with Ulysses the reality is that the same thing has happened when I’ve tried to read the print version of Ulysses. So shoot me, but Ulysses is my surefire cure for insomnia- so better not to try it on the M9.




2 thoughts on “Driving to Waterford with the Goldfinch: The thing about audio books

  1. Eileen Keane

    On the recommendation of Tony Mc Guinness I have now downloaded the RTE dramatisation of Ulysses- maybe this one will finally work for me!

  2. Hi Eileen,

    I also tried Ulysses’ audio book. I was surprised that I enjoyed it but didn’t get to the end. The next time I’m on a long journey, I’ll make a point of packing an audio book. The warm bed and physical book remains one of my glorious simple pleasures.

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