Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Perfect Mile (Neal Bascomb) (8.5/10.0)

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It
What do we all think about audio books? It’s a topic that receives a great deal of treatment out there in the book-review blogdom. And I’ll freely admit that I’m never quite sure about my own feelings on the matter. Is it possible to “read” a work of literature by listening? Or, more importantly, is the enjoyment that you receive from listening to an audio book equal to the enjoyment that you receive from actually reading that same book? I raise the issue because I recently listened to the The Perfect Mile on audio book (which can be found here). Moreover, I listened to it while running, and I truly believe that I got much more enjoyment from it in that medium than I would have by reading it in print. The same tends to hold true for me for my guilty pleasures, science fiction (Orson Scott Card) and action/adventure books (Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum). I'm still a classics guy at heart, but I like to mix it up every now and then. But to the point: as a rule, I believe that a true work of literature (classic or modern) should be read and that listening to such a work deprives the listener of the true force of the tale. What do you believe?

Now what was I doing before I got so philosophical? Ah yes, reviewing a book ... that’s right. The Perfect Mile is the fast-paced (pun completely intended) story of three men from three continents that all chased the impossible dream of breaking the four-minute mile in the 1950’s. Roger Bannister, an English medical student, treated running as science and a hobby (his first priority being medicine); Australian John Landy trained longer and harder than anyone before or since; and American Wes Santee was a natural athlete who rose to prominence out of a brutal childhood and first proposed that he would break the four-minute mile. Bascomb’s treatment of the three is properly measured, providing enough background for the reader (listener) to identify with each (though Landy inevitably becomes the reader’s favorite) and presenting each race during the period 1952 to 1954 as a seat-edge sitting, nail-biting competition that inevitably comes down to the wire. And so, after numerous battles on the cinder track at competitions held around the world, the four-minute mile was finally broken by ... No, I can’t do that, but if you’re really interested a simple Google search will give you the winner.

If you run or work out at the gym or do work around the house or do just about anything that will enable you to wear a pair of headphones or ear buds, I urge you to check out this inspiring story (in audio format) that, at bottom, shows that human belief and perseverance can overcome any obstacle. Not that I’m running any four-minute miles, mind you, but it did inspire me to get out and run, and that’s worth something.


  1. On audio: To succinctly answer your questions: depends.

    Having gotten that inadequate response out of the way, allow me to add: I think it's quite possible to "read" a work of literature by listening to it. You're still absorbing the story, and indeed, listening may help readers/listeners overcome that sense of intimidation that sometimes characterizes classic literature. For example. My acquaintance with Jane Austen's work is entirely the work of audio. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to read her novels, but it was only when I began listening to her work that I learned to appreciate her humour, her characters, and the stories she told. Audio removed the distraction of sentences and paragraphs that seemed without end; it allowed me to concentrate on the story, and consequently to enjoy it.

    My experience with Dickens was similar. Dickens in print was an unending horror of doorstopping tomes that never seemed to grow any thinner, no matter how long I read. But Dickens on audio was rarely so intimidating; I always looked forward to each cassette (I never did manage to find Dickens on CD, before I switched to an MP3 player).

    Listening has always struck me primarily as a matter of entertainment and diversion. It seems easier to absorb the story - might it be more accurate to say the plot? - when listening. But I like pondering what I read as I read it, and it can be difficult to do that when one is listening. With an audiobook, you have the narrator's voice in your head; while reading print, there is only your own voice. But the conflict of voices is not impossible to surmount. Sure, setting a book aside so that I can think and write about what I've just read takes less effort than trying to keep hold of my slippery thoughts while I scramble for the pause button, a pencil, and some paper. But in my experience, audiobooks don't hinder critical thought entirely. It can prove more of a stop-and-go process, but it's as viable as any process a reader may apply in print.

    Listening has its cons: one is more likely to listen while doing something else, and that something else can prove enough of a distraction that you end up listening without hearing a word. But the same could be said for reading. Eye-glazing is a terrible habit of mine.

    My preferred process - more of a theory than anything I've put into regular practice, but I'm getting there - for audiobooks versus print is to combine the two. If I've had difficulty with a text, I'll listen to it. It allows me to get over that first hurdle of settling into the story. And having listened, I'll go back and read - sometimes mere passages, at other times the entire book - in the hope of getting more out of the book than I may have previously.

    If, on the other hand, the story is distractingly metaphysical (which is probably a terrible and inaccurate word; I mean to say a book that is more than the story it tells - if it even meant to tell a story. For example - Descartes' "Discourse on the Method" - I couldn't listen to it, and I'm still scarred by the fact that I tried), I'll read it. Sometimes, words read are more concrete, and easier to grasp and understand.

    But even with listening, I think it is possible to "get" the full impact of a true work of literature one would (or simply might) receive when reading. I've listened to classics that have left me breathless, and they have impacted me just as fully as if I had read and understood their significance the first time around. Ultimately, for me, it's a toss up. I think it's possible to experience all the power of a work of literature either as a listener or a reader.

    ... My apologies for going on at such length on your page; this comment went on a bit longer than it was supposed to. But in my defense, you asked such interesting questions!


  2. I've only ever listened to the Harry Potter books on audio...and they were FANTASTIC. I can't imagine listening to some of the stuff I've been reading for my blog on audio. Maybe I will try it for my next book to see. :)

  3. Entish, thanks for very politely disagreeing with me. Seriously, you caused me to think back to any classics that I had listened to and actually enjoyed. And I suddenly remembered that I listened to Brideshead Revisited with the earbuds glued to my ears for a full two weeks. I could not get enough. It was one of those times when the end of the book actually sends you into a mini-depression because you know it will beyears before you find something so good again. Anyhow, I stand corrected (in part). And I agree with your assessment that it is the metaphysical classic book that defies enjoyment on audio. Well done, sir.

    SocrMom78, I have never read a Harry Potter book [I say looking about me for thunderbolts], but I imagine (based on the movies) that they would make great audio. Maybe I'll pick one up for my next training session. In any case, let me know if you experiment further ...

  4. Ok, Entish. I was looking for an audio book today, and I picked up Dickens' Bleak House. I'm putting your theory to the test.

  5. I listen to audiobooks while I jog too! Everybody I know thinks I'm crazy. So far I've only listened to Harry Potter, but I think I'll mostly stick with light reads and YA fiction because my listening comprehension can be a bit pathetic. Maybe I'll try this though, as it seems appropriate!

  6. Jennifer, I have the same problem, which may explain why I have such trouble listening to the classics. I find myself spacing out and having to backtrack, which isn't all that easy on an iPod while running! The Perfect Mile is very easy on the ears, though - I hope you enjoy it!