Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Northanger Abbey

When I lived on the island, I could get to work by foot, bike or metro. The walk was long, the metro could be annoying, the climb up the bridge across the St. Laurence could be brutal on a bike if there was wind. Still the choice between these options made going to work more like an activity than a commute. They were fun.

That all changed when I moved to the country. Now if I want to go to work—and alas I must go—then I have a half-hour or so commute each way. I’d prefer to use the train—because I love the train—but there’s no station within a practical distance from the school. So I drive, thankfully across rather than with traffic.

This commute isn't difficult and I enjoy having the time alone to bracket my day, but after the first few weeks of making the trip, I wondered if listening to books as I drove might be fun. I grabbed an unabridged audiobook of Austin’s Northanger Abbey to see.

Turns out I love audiobooks, I continue to love Austin, and I found myself too often sitting in the parked car, engine off with the radio running on the battery, listening to the last minutes of a chapter. Austin’s telling of Catherine’s story is glorious. The long early description of what Catherine is not, and the later descriptions of her experience at her first ball and, later still, Henry’s guess at what Catherine had hoped Northanger might be stand out. It was a genuinely enjoyable book.

But here’s the thing: the world disappears when I read. It’s always has. Same thing with my mother, my sisters. And so, I should have expected it when one day, driving down a two lane road, frustrated by Mr Thorpe’s ridiculous lies and with Catherine’s naïve credulity—I was caught up enough that I was speaking aloud, “He’s lying Catherine. He’s lying”—caught up like this, I blew through a stop sign. Nothing happened. It was a country road. No one was there. I was fine. But things could have gone very badly, and I was rattled.

Home later, I called Mom and asked if she’d ever listened to audiobooks as she drove, thinking maybe she’d have some tricks but also because I was curious. She said “no” but that my sister did until one day she got caught up in the story and ran through a red light in town. She was lucky because nobody was around, but she stopped listening to books because she didn’t trust herself to focus on the road while they were going. Mom said she avoided them for the same reason.

Well, I didn’t have the option of walking away. Catherine’s Henry and Mr. Thorpe problems weren’t done, and poor Eleanor was alone in the Abbey. Would she find a friend? I resolved to pay attention to my attention, and if I saw myself starting to disappear, I’d shut it off.

It worked.

I finished the book, there were no more incidents, and I like listening to books as I drive enough to keep doing it. BUT, I’m going to shift away from novels because I think non-fiction will be easier to manage mentally.

Posted August 17, 2015