Before moving last year, I had always commuted to work via public transportation. It wasn't always fun having to check the subway seat for urine, but it did have certain advantages. Leaving the driving to someone else, I could read books. In fact, the majority of my reading time came during my morning and evening hour on the train.
Now I live in the land of cars, and I have to drive 40 minutes to get to work and sometimes as long as an hour to get home. Sitting in gridlock for an hour and a half each day can get pretty old, but it's even worse when you feel like you're just wasting the time. In the beginning, I listened to NPR obsessively, but there are only so many stories I can listen to about Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and the fascinating subject of porches. I had to find a more productive use of my commute.
Finally, about a month ago, I had an epiphany: I could check out audiobooks from the library and listen to them while I drove. There are so many books that I want to read, and I know I'll never get to them all. This is the perfect way to be able to get some "reading" done while sitting behind the wheel.
Audiobooks aren't perfect. You are at the mercy of the narrator's voice, which all too often is inflected with obnoxious mannerisms or over-the-top accents. Also, it's a lot easier to follow a complex thought on the page than to listen to it read aloud. Sometimes, when someone cuts me off in traffic and I'm cursing at them through my windshield, I'll completely tune out and have to rewind the CD to get my bearings again.
Since I don't get as much out of books on tape, I keep to strictly non-fiction. I figure it's kind of like attending a lecture in college. It doesn't matter if I don't absorb every word as long as I get the gist. So far, I've already listened to three books on CD: Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and most recently, Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.
I had never actually sat down and read Under the Banner of Heaven, though I had skimmed through it extensively when it came out in 2003. What surprised me most while listening to the audiobook version is the change in my reaction from then to now. When it came out I was full of righteous indignation even though I hadn't been to church once in the previous five years. I didn't really believe in Mormonism, but I still wasn't certain that it wasn't true either. I had unwittingly retained a vestigial belief and with it a great deal of defensiveness.
My objections at the time were that Krakauer: (a) didn't do enough to distinguish LDS from FLDS, (b) blamed on mainstream Mormonism the actions of a few madmen, and (c) delivered a particularly low blow on Elizabeth Smart. I didn't read the book all the way through (Maude had bought a copy and read it already) because it made me so mad.
Three years on, after losing all of my belief, the book didn't upset me at all. I still think non-Mormons could be confused between the FLDS and LDS, since Krakauer shifts from talking about one to the other frequently. However, I hadn't realized at the time how many of the FLDS in question were born mainstream Mormon and only became FLDS later in life. The Lafferty brothers and Brian David Mitchell were regular Mormons who somehow morphed into violent fundamentalists; this is not something that is acknowledged in most church circles. Because they had been excommunicated by the time they committed their crimes, they are seen as completely unconnected to Mormonism. This despite the fact that these heinous acts were overtly religious in nature and specifically tied to Mormonism and polygamy.
I still think Krakauer missteps badly in his almost casual assertion that Mormonism helped victimize Elizabeth Smart by making her conditioned to accept authority. It's certainly a plausible theory, but it seems unseemly and unnecessary to me to speculate on the mental condition of a sex abuse victim. There is plenty to focus on in the perpetrator and his religious motives for the crime.
Apart from these objections, I thought it was a very compelling book that did a good job of condensing 200 years of church history and highlighting the dangerous fringes of faith. I think a lot of my earlier hostility towards the book stemmed from my assumption that Krakauer was digging through the dirty laundry to try to discredit the church and imply that all of us Mormons were dangerous fanatics. Now I can see that he is simply trying to explain how extremism (in this case Mormon Fundamentalism) can appeal to some people and cause them to justify frighteningly inhumane acts.
There were a lot of things that I simply didn't want to hear or believe about the church three years ago, so it's probably a good thing that I didn't force my way through this book back then. I had to figure these things out for myself first, before I was willing to accept the word of an outsider.
The most important thing is that I learned a lot more in the week or so it took to listen to Under the Banner of Heaven than I would have learned listening to NPR. I think I'll take my pledge drive money and donate it to the library instead. Take that, Terry Gross.