A Listening Experience

As part of a five hour drive I had, I got to listen to Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation*. The book is written by Joseph Ellis and narrated by Nelson Runger. What a team they make!

Ellis is a terrific writer, and Runger is a terrific reader. Actually, that’s an understatement. Ellis is a terrific writer, and Runger’s reading adds so much to the text that I’m tempted to say I had a superior experience listening to Founding Brothers than I would’ve had reading it. Runger’s is better than my inner voice!

Founding Brothers is a particularly apt book for the narrator to display his talent. Ellis quotes each of the founding brothers — Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Adams, and Burr — extensively, thus giving Runger the opportunity to craft a distinct voice — inflection, tone, emphasis, emotive state — for each revolutionary on the occasion of his speech or correspondence. The wry humor, the bad tempers; the indignation in defense, the jabs in attacks; the seriousness of the matters at hand, the ostentatious poses made for posterity, Runger conveys them all. In his rendition, the reader gets not only the immediacy of Founding Brothers but also the crystal clear meaning of Ellis’s words. My inner voice, moving differently as it renders meaning, could have at best equalled Runger’s. There is little room to do better.


* You can listen to a sample of Runger’s reading at the link provided above. Try reading these lines before you listen to Runger reading them. What do you think?

The old adage applies: Men make history, and the leading members of the revolutionary generation realized they were doing so, but they can never know the history they are making. We can look back and make the era of the American Revolution a center point, then scan the terrain upstream and downstream, but they can only know what is downstream. An anecdote that Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, liked to tell in his old age makes the point memorably. On July 4, 1776, just after the Continental Congress had finished making its revisions of the Declaration and sent it off to the printer for publication, Rush overheard a conversation between Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry,” said Harrison, “when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”

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