Listen to the audio version of this article:
In The Booth, where I was about to relive this whole experience, I could hear my own heart beating, and it was beating fast. Alarmingly fast.
I glanced at the small vent overhead and took as deep a breath as it looked like it would permit. Then I read the opening of my book, the scene in which, as a small boy, I overhear my aunt tell my mother she wishes I were her son. (Of course my discomfort had nothing to do with revisiting that moment or preserving it, digitally, for all time.)
“Everything all right?” a voice, Oz-like, inquired through the headphones—it was Chealsea, the audio technician. What had she seen? The windows fogging up? The waterfall cascading down my forehead?
“Umm … it’s kind of warm in here?”
She opened the door. I tumbled out, gulping air.
Like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. When, at a meeting last summer, a member of the marketing team at Farrar, Straus and Giroux told me that more and more authors, especially authors of memoirs, were recording their own books, I nodded politely. But then she asked outright, “So how would you feel about reading yours?”
The response I heard in my inner ear: Are you out of your mind?
The one I offered aloud: “Sure.”
Some people treat their anxiety with drugs; I treat mine with research. I reached out to a few actor friends. One passed me on to the actor Adam Grupper, who has recorded scores of audio books. I envisioned Adam sitting me down and teaching me how to use, rather than misuse, my voice; how to hold myself physically; where to pause, breathe, emphasize, deemphasize; and what to do with my diaphragm (weren’t actors and singers always talking about their diaphragms?).
Instead he imparted all his wisdom in a four-sentence phone call: “Wear loose clothing. Pause when you scroll down on the iPad, since the microphone picks up every sound. Drink lots of water, and take plenty of breaks. The most important thing of all: Remember, it’s a marathon, not a race.”
Paradoxically, I don’t dislike reading aloud—under the right circumstances. I like to read aloud to myself, to measure how a particular sentence scans (though certainly I’m not in a rhythm-checking league with Virginia Woolf, whose housekeeper used to hear her speaking her sentences every morning in the bathtub). I have read aloud to my daughter for years, at night when she was younger, nowadays over breakfast. Nothing like a daily dose of The Odyssey to send a kid off to sixth grade battle-ready for beasts, both real and imagined.
These are mere dabblings, however, compared to the experience that awaited me at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. The Booth measured roughly three feet square by eight feet high—about the same size and proportion as an old-fashioned phone booth. It was furnished with a chair and a pillow and, opposite the chair, a narrow ledge to hold the iPad, the water pitcher and glass, a notebook, and the headphones when they were not in use. A microphone swung down from overhead and was shielded by a small round screen, to help clarify the letter P (for most readers p’s purportedly pose a particularly pernicious problem). To me, that microphone looked like a scary black bird that was both ravenous and taunting: Go ahead and break the family taboo, it seemed to say, and feed me your story—if you dare.