Reading by Ear: The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry
read by Ron Rifkin


I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating, since it was such a significant moment in my development as a reader.

I read The Giver for the first time in middle school, when I was roughly around the same age as Jonas is when we begin the novel. I was already reading adult novels (we didn’t have a fancy thriving young adult industry when I was a kiddo, sonny jim!)at that age, so it wasn’t a particular challenge. What did challenge me was the ending. Something was clearly off about the strange, dreamy ending, but there wasn’t enough information for me to determine what happened. The author chose not to tell me what happened. My teacher couldn’t tell me what happened with any certainty.

And then it dawned on me—the only person who could decide what happened to them was me. For a sheltered kid who was still a few years away from understanding the concept of television, this was essentially a superpower. Naturally, I spent the next two weeks flicking Ending A and Ending B on and off in my head, drunk with power. My first reading of The Giver made me fall in love with ambigious endings and introduced me to the concept of reader as agent, setting me down the path that’s led me to become a feral reader-response theorist.

Of course, like many things I believed as a child (You don’t control the weather, little Clare!), this was based on little to no common sense. I read The Giver in 2002, two years after the publication of Gathering Blue, which establishes what happened to Jonas and Gabriel after the end of the novel. If I’d wanted to know what happened next, I only had to ask—but I never did. It’s a rare stroke of luck that I didn’t learn about this until well into college, after fandom had turned me into a reader with quite the teeth.

But—and I say this as someone who has never read the other books in the ominously and simply named Quartet—perhaps there’s something more than the pop culture-proof bubble I grew up in to how that story ends. The Giver, on its own, is remarkably self-contained. Its worldbuilding is briefly but expertly sketched. It’s a terribly lean piece of work. Boy grows up in supposed utopia, discovers its dark underpinnings, While it’s marketed towards children (although I’m still confused as to why we classify it as young adult instead of middle-grade at the store), it’s appropriate for everyone.

Readers have talked about why dystopias are so hot right now with the kids, but it might be because adolescence is exactly the time when you’re both learning about the world around you and when you start to question why that world is the way it is. To grossly generalize, young adult dystopias tend to have a theme of rebellion or revolution; adult dystopias tend to use the dystopia as a setting, not a catalyst. As the novel opens, Jonas believes everything he is told. He has no reason to question the world around him until he actually has to face the idea of living in this world as an adult by starting the training for his adult career. His age is less a function of the readership Lois Lowry wants, and more a function of needing a protagonist at a crucial juncture in his life. Jonas could have been ten; he could have been eighteen. The point is that he is in a liminal space, that wild territory where anything can happen.

During this reading, I especially noticed how isolated the members of Jonas’ community really are. Late in the novel, Jonas realizes that the way families are constructed in his community discourage lifelong relationships. After his little sister matures out of the house, they will go to live with the Childless Adults and have no further contact with the children they raised. Given how central the family unit is to someone Jonas’ age, it’s a shocking thought. And that’s the power of genre fiction like this—to shock and unsettle us enough to reexamine the world we live in.

Ron Rifkin does a wonderful job as a narrator, making Jonas sound young enough to be believable as a thirteen year old. Plus, the Stepfordian joviality of Jonas’ parents is pitch perfect. But, like most audiobooks, the problem is the sound mixing. For some reason, Listening Library thought it best to underscore the narration with as much music as humanly possible, which is extraordinarily distracting. It’s manipulative, too—I, as a reader, understand that Jonas is going through a happy or difficult time. I don’t need to be reminded of how I’m supposed to be feeling at every turn, audiobook.

Bottom line: A lean and essential piece of dystopian fiction. Well worth a read.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Giver

  1. I love reading about other people’s reading experiences that changed how they understood what books were capable of. There are some books that are like this to me, and I always feel tremendously grateful to them for expanding my notions of what a book (and, kind of, the world?) could be. That stays true even when they aren’t that great as books — Caroline B. Cooney’s book Among Friends was the first time I discovered you could have multiple points of view in one single book, and it blew my nine-year-old mind. :p

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