Have you ever read a book and known, just known, that you should like it, but you just aren’t quite getting it? I’m not talking about those books we think we’re supposed to like because they’re highly acclaimed or popular; I’m talking about books that are doing everything right, that have qualities that you usually love, but that just aren’t clicking for you. I’ve just finished listening to Kim by Rudyard Kipling and read by Simon Vance, and I must confess that the experience was not a success. But in this case, I don’t think the book is the problem. The fault is in the audio format.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m more forgiving of certain kinds of narrative problems when I’m listening to an audiobook. For example, when it’s difficult to flip back to previous pages, a certain amount of repetitiveness can be helpful. I’ve listened to several audiobooks, however, that I felt lukewarm about, and I wondered if the problem was not the book, but the audio format. With Kim, I’m almost certain that the format was at least part of the problem.
Kim tells the story of Kimball O’Hara, the son of an Irish solider in India. Orphaned at a young age, Kim has spent his like wandering the streets, begging for food as needed, and doing odd jobs to earn money. He’s poor, but happy, and no one even seems aware that he’s the son of a white man.
Early in the novel, Kim becomes the chela (disciple) of a Tibetan lama who is searching for a great river. Kim joins him on his travels, and before long, he encounters his father’s regiment. When the soldiers realize who Kim is, they decide to get him an education. Kim balks at the idea, but the lama makes sure that Kim gets the best education possible by paying for him to attend the best school available in India. So Kim becomes educated in the ways of his white forebears, all with an eye to someday getting involved in the Great Game of spying for the British Empire. When he is on school breaks, he hurries back to his former life on the road, where he gets some firsthand experience and specialized training in spying that the schools would not provide.
Given that this is a story of travel, adventure, and espionage, one might expect lots of excitement and suspense. This expectation is one of the reasons I thought Kim might be a good choice on audio. But I found Kim to be more meditative, filled with the lama’s musings on the Wheel of Things and the elaborate descriptions of the people and places Kim encounters during his many travels. The bits of adventure are subtly presented, requiring one to read between the lines in a way that is difficult to do with an audiobook. There were several times that I didn’t even realize that I was seeing espionage in action, and because I was listening instead of reading, I couldn’t go back and see exactly what happened once I got a sense that I’d missed something. I know I lost several plot threads entirely, and it’s not like the plot was really complicated; it’s just not presented in a simple, obvious way.
The other challenge had to do with the setting. The locations, names, religious ideas—everything—were almost entirely new to me. This made it harder for me to follow the plot or understand the character relationships. It’s not really that the book is difficult. I don’t think I would find it so in print, but the unfamiliarity requires a closer sort of reading, especially in the early pages when the scene is being set and the characters introduced, than I can get with an audiobook.
So I’m left with mixed feelings. There were parts of the book that I absolutely loved. When Kim first met his father’s regiment, I was riveted. And the relationship between Kim and the lama, really the heart of the book, is moving and lovingly presented. I found the interrelationships among the many different cultures of 19th century India to be fascinating. I could tell that this is a rich book, but I felt that I was just skimming over the surface with my listening. I’m left wanting more, but I think the more is there, in the printed pages of Kipling’s own classic. I’ll have to give it another try someday and see.