Now hear this

“‘Am I growing spiritually’? … Ask your family.”

–Edgar Cayce

“Guru” is a Sanskrit word meaning “teacher.” And true book lovers know that, as acts of creation, books are slivers of the divine. For many spiritual seekers, listening to audio books is a way to expand their spiritual horizons conveniently and inexpensively — and, most importantly, without fear of criticism. There’s a wide variety of formats available, from audio versions of nonfiction books to popular fiction odysseys (such as the Celestine Prophecy and the Left Behind series) to lectures and interviews.

As the so-called “Sedona of the East,” Asheville might be expected to have galaxies of audio books on spirituality and metaphysics. Wrong! The Asheville-Buncombe Library System carries only a minuscule selection — not even the last decade’s best book on spirituality, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, is available. Nor is there anything by my personal favorites: reincarnation investigator Gina Cerminara (Many Lives, Many Loves), Creative Visualizations pioneer Shaktai Gawain, and the grande dame of affirmations, Louise Hay (Meditations to Heal Your Life).

Why this dearth? “Simple practical concerns,” explains Reference Librarian Laura Gaskin. “Audio books get heavy customer use, so durability is a big factor in what we purchase.”

To explain: The big audio book publishers (Books on Tape and Recorded Books) have generous “replacement policies” for all those tapes that get chewed up in our tape players. Smaller publishers, including most that put out New Age books, are less accommodating. In addition, their slimmer packaging isn’t sturdy enough to endure heavy library use.

To make matters worse (and you must take this on faith), the library’s spiritual books keep getting stolen! Readers and listeners of print and audio works on astrology and the occult tend to be the worst offenders in this area, with fans of the most popular New Age titles close behind. Talk about bad karma!

But I digress. “The library chooses books largely based on reviews in … mainstream journals such as Library Journal,” Gaskin continues. Thus, a marvelous author like Kathleen Norris (Cloister Walk), who has a major publisher, would get librarians’ attention — but the gems of smaller presses go unrecognized “unless enough customers request them.”

Perhaps, though, you’ll decide to launch your journey for spiritual audio books anyway (see sidebar). A good choice for the beginning spiritual seeker is the ’60s classic Chop Wood, Carry Water. Though abridged, the audio version is a pure delight, thanks to benign editing of the original text and Richard Thomas’ gentle, direct delivery.

Inner Simplicity is written and read by reformed high-flying executive Elaine St. James. In her eager, efficient style, St. James offers encouragement and practical tips on how to de-clutter your life from the inside out.

Oprah’s pal Ilyana Vanzant has an outrageous, in-your-face spiritual style that really works on tape. Her One Day My Soul Just Opened Up could only have been written by a woman who has been there/done that too many times and lived to joke about it.

“People believe that once you embark on the journey to spirituality,” Vanzant laughs, “you should never get mad — that you should always be loving, understanding. Get a grip! We are human beings! A spiritual consciousness does not make you immune to normal human responses to experiences. What it does, however, is give you tools to work with.” Her next book? “It’s Divas Don’t Fart: 101 Ways to Disguise Your Mistakes!” she quips.

“The important thing about spiritual growth,” says “Father Joe” Girzone, author of the best-selling Joshua parables, “is that it should be psychologically healthy.” Never Alone: A Personal Way to God is his first nonfiction book and one of the few library audio books catalogued as “Christian.” It’s a charmer — a sad, touching story told by a warm, compassionate man who loves God but wanted to break away from the unhappiness he had found among pious people.

Some authors, on the other hand, should not narrate their own books. I couldn’t get past even a few minutes of Anne Lamott’s sing-song rendition of her Traveling Mercies, and Sam Keen comes off as a stuffy professor in his Hymns to an Unknown God. Strangely, the author with the largest number of spirituality tapes in the library, Deepak Chopra, remains a mystery to me. How come a guy who is so wise (and who has so much money) can’t get help with his lisp? (Really, Deepak.)

“The question is not who is talking,” God says in Conversations with God, “But who is listening?” In a masterpiece of inspired casting, Ellyn Burstyn and Ed Asner seamlessly share the role of God, making God credible, funny and — well, very human. Alas, somebody decided God wasn’t enough, and tacked on an interview with Conversations author Neale Donald Walsch. In response to a question about why God talks to him, Walsch begins, “I don’t want to sound arrogant.” But he does.

Don’t automatically assume that all spiritual books are snooty, however. Sylvia Browne’s husky, dyed-blonde-next-door voice turns her Adventures of a Psychic into a lively soap opera, making it painfully obvious why psychics complain that they can help everybody except themselves. A tape-turner on an epic scale is Intimates Through Time, Jess Stearns’ fascinating study of Edgar Cayce’s (The Sleeping Prophet) seven past lives, plus those of people repeatedly involved in Cayce’s “karmic cluster.”

The abridged tape version of the current bestseller The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., is a beautiful example of an audio book that transcends its print original and soars into something separate and wonderful. Everything about this book is thoughtful, elegant and intelligent. There are no glib answers, yet everything is comprehensible — and worth replaying many times. It flows between commentary and questions from Dr. Cutler (in a pleasant, emotion-choked voice) and answers from the charismatic Tibetan leader (or his actor surrogate, Ernest Abuba), punctuated by pauses for meditation.

“What brings us happiness?” the Dalai Lama is asked. “Compassion is the feeling of unbearableness at the sight of other peoples’ suffering,” he answers, and adds, “Compassion is what brings us happiness.”

(Next month: Audio books for Real Men, or What to Choose for the Long Haul.)

Marcianne Miller is an Asheville-based writer and storyteller.

Want to branch out from the library?

If you’re frustrated with the small number of audio books on spirituality and metaphysics available for free at the library, exercise your prosperity consciousness and rent or buy tapes from local bookstores. Warning: No one has a huge selection, and the stock changes all the time, so call first if you’re looking for something in particular. Otherwise, trust in synchronicity — wander through the shelves and allow the book you need to pick you!

Asheville

Downtown Books and News (67 N. Lexington Ave.), 253-8754
Small selection of used audio books; will take in trade. Stock has high turnover, so keep checking.

The Readers Corner (31 Montford Ave.), 285-8805
Specializes in renting audio books. Their 1,000+ titles include a small but solid selection of metaphysical tapes. Examples: Contacting Your Inner Guides by Shaktai Gawain, and Tao of Philosophy by Allan Watts. Extremely reasonable prices.

Accent on Books (854 Merrimon Ave.), 252-6255
Specializes in new audio books for sale and rent. About 30 new spirituality titles for rent.

Malaprop’s, Books-a-Million and Essential Arts carry a good number of spirituality and
metaphysical books but comparatively few audio books. The best prices on the most popular mass-market metaphysical books can be found in Sam’s Club. There are too many bookstores in the area specializing in Christianity-themed books and tapes to list here. They all have large selections for sale, and some have rentals. Check the Yellow Pages.

Naples

Crystal Visions (5920 Asheville Hwy.), 687-1193
WNC’s largest selection of new books and audio books on metaphysics.

Second Sight (5924 Asheville Hwy.), 687-1449
WNC’s largest selection of used books and audio books on metaphysics. Example: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan, the best primer on meditation; it’s hard to find — and a bargain at $5.

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