As a teacher of high school sophomores, I assure you that students almost never read the book that you assign them to read at home. That’s one of the reasons why I like to use audio books with my classes. It really teaches them what the words sound like, how to use them together, and how to express a complete thought. They like to hear it while they look at the book. And I like to see them hearing it while they look at it. That way, I know that even if they are not processing everything that has been read to them, at least they had to physically sit in the room and let the audiobook narrator come through their ears and tell them the whole story. As much of it as they can understand is there for them, washing over them.
I do at least know that they were in the room where the audiobook happened. When a famous person writes a book, I strongly prefer to listen to the audiobook, if it has been narrated by the actual famous person herself. The reason has to do with pretty much the same thing as giving the sophomores these audio books. I like to know that the famous person who supposedly wrote this book at a bare minimum sat in the recording booth and went through it one entire time for herself, whether she wrote it or not.
When sophomores present a project to me orally, I can tell within the first few minutes whether they have really taken the time to think through and write out these sentiments that they are delivering to me themselves, or whether they had a little or a lot of help from a friend or the Internet. The same is true for a famous person who writes a book. You can tell by the sounds coming out of her mouth whether she has written the book herself. And I promise you this: Hillary Clinton has written What Happened herself, because when she reads it, alone in that recording booth, it’s so clearly in the sounds of her own, real voice. She’s not reading it in a manner that is “selling it” to the listener. She’s genuinely expressing her own sentiments.
All audiobook narrations begin with an abundance of gusto, but after the first chapter or two, they settle into a more direct vein of the narrator’s personality. Some audiobook narrators read the book like they assume their audience is a bunch of kindergarteners. Other audiobook narrators assume their booth is a stage where everything must be conveyed in the utmost dramatic manner. My favorite nonfiction audiobook narrators are those who sound like they’re in a darkened bar in the back corner booth with just one person listening to them. There’s a certain kind of intimacy that really good narrators—and some charismatic famous people who have written their own books—are capable of conveying on the audio.
The way Clinton rolls the names of other politicians off her tongue readily reveals that person to be friend or foe—it’s clear the way she sounds sad and bitter, or and sweet and biting. It’s all there in the grain of the voice, as Roland Barthes would say. An audiobook recording always finds its function through that more intimate sense of a smaller, closer audience and this venue is one where Hillary Clinton shines. She’s neither reading What Happened to us nor performing it for us. It’s not spoken in stagey campaign noises, nor poised for didacticism and explanations or excuses. Clinton is alone in the sound booth, reckoning with herself. It won’t exactly be private, but it is definitely personal.
Many moons ago, when I called dibs on reviewing this Hillary Clinton memoir, the angle I chose was that she wrote a series of reflections on some quotations that had influenced her life. By the month of the book’s release date, the title What Happened lent a very different story. I was darned interested in that first angle, though, and wondered how much of it would be present in this other book that presumably would relitigate her loss in the election. Within a week of the release date, the beefs emerged in the form of some leaked pages—harsh words for Bernie, examples of Trump’s misogyny. Twenty-four hours before the release date, Clinton went on CBS and said she was not going to be a candidate ever again, but she would remain in politics because it was so important to save our future.
What Happened is not so much a campaign postmortem or declaration of retirement as it is a personalization of her public works. Clinton’s problem has never been in doing the job. She struggles to do it in front of the camera. Her smile can be uneasy. She can seem wooden even when she is on fire for her cause. When we say someone is unelectable, we’re only talking about the pathos of selling the talking points. Clinton is fueled by ethos and logos, and for some reason, America doesn’t take the measure of a woman’s competency and just marvel, look at the agility of her intellect—she’ll do an amazing job on this hard thing that needs doing.
Clinton’s book tour has 15 stops, including in my tow. Tickets for front row, center cost about $800. Nosebleeds are going for $80. What is it I need to get out of this event? More consistently now, it only matters to me that I’m in the room. Front row is too limited a scene somehow, an intimacy that is senselessly constricted. What good would it do me to be physically close to Clinton? No part of me needs it. Perhaps at best we might make eye contact for a moment. People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, a cliché with which I do not disagree. But they are not the only windows.
I prefer to study the grain of the voice. Perched in the shadows of the third row from the back, high above the speck of pants suit on stage, I will breathe in the sound of Clinton and understand whatever it is I’m going there to understand. There’s going to be some type of healing it in, some kinds of recognition and a few reversals. This is also why I recommend anybody interested in reading What Happened to listen to it—either instead of the text or alongside it. The audiobook puts you in the room where it’s happening, where Clinton is facing herself. Judge her by her sounds. She is being real, whether any of us likes her or agrees with her or not.
Probably readers of this review were expecting me to discuss the book’s content. Clinton herself would no doubt prefer if we could focus on the challenges that lie ahead—or at least give due to her interests in Nietzsche or the Roosevelts or her humorous anecdotes about food on the road or her instructions for alternate-nostril breathing techniques. But I have kept a finger on one moment from the 2008 New Hampshire primary when Clinton got misty-eyed in response to a woman’s question about how she gets out of bed and does what she does every day. Clinton said, “Some people think elections are a game: who’s up or who’s down,” and then her voice cracked just a little bit and she kept talking about how important and personal the work of governance is to her. The moment grabbed voters and headlines. Pundits speculated on whether it was an authentically emotional scene or one manufactured for publicity.
Hillary Clinton’s sound is part of the content, and if the medium is the message, it doesn’t get more personal than an audiobook. It’s pretty easy to manufacture one little sob in front of a bank of cameras. It’s comparatively much more difficult to fake thousands of emotive vocal tics over the course of narrating your book for 17 hours.
The text of the book is necessarily stuck in the political feedback cycle of who’s up or who’s down. Right now, it’s true, Clinton’s chips are down—to the point where some pundits even question her right to tell her own campaign story. There’s a lot of interesting content in What Happened that will no doubt be glossed for a long while yet because we are still so close to the rage and the fog of it. Nobody picking up this book right now is doing it to get at the heart of the 2016 campaign fail—we’re reading it to get at the heart of Hillary Clinton. And if you really want to get at her heart, it’s not a matter of reading, so much as listening to her.
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