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Character or Plot? What Turns You On?

Still wandering among the thorny questions explored in my last column (, I can see now that the thicket has changed. In addition to musings on experiences of print and audio books and contexts in which experiences are situated, or even by concerns about the relationship between the book and its reader/listener. No, I can set aside the question: Is the experience of reading the text, holding the book, turning the pages a more active one (the reader an active participant in creating the meaning of the story) than the experience of listening to the audio book’s narrators—performers—who invite the listener to sit back, enjoy the production as a passive audience member.

My new thicket still rings with the woman’s words uttered in the restaurant: “I kept waiting for something to happen.” I was struck by what I overheard her say about the well-paced and active book Lincoln in the Bardo, (see review at

I am struck by how wrong I might be, questioning my own assumption that if she had listened to the dazzling performance offered by the audio book, maybe she would have felt the lively animated characters cavorting in the cemetery Saunders makes so vivid.


What if the woman is a reader looking for a plot-driven story, while I am a listener diving deep into the well-drawn characters of a story? Listening to Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, I loved being caught up by the characters, all of them, felt as if I was deep inside their thoughts and feelings,. It was like Egan and I were touching their souls. This was the first half of the book. (see my review at

The second half is plot-driven. It has its moments of suspense and the book becomes a page-turner. My challenge was not to understand the characters’ motives or needs but rather to ride the roller coaster of plot twists, the things that happened to them, sometimes incredibly it seemed to me. Personally, I felt manipulated. I was supposed to hang on tight, not dive deeper in. My role had changed from an active to a much more passive one.

Happily for me, Egan’s writing returns to its breathtaking metaphorical style at the end. For readers/listeners who need both characters and plot to carry them through a good story, Manhattan Beach has the power.

Meanwhile, I will wander a while longer in this thicket, wondering what makes a reader/listen crave characters? And another to revel in plot?

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