Tue
Sep 8 2009 11:50am
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin...

Now, I am very aware that almost every blog post I put up here contains the words “In Britain…”. This is not because I am obsessed with my home country. Nor is it that I assume that everyone here is unaware of British things. For all I know, every single person who reads this may be British themselves.

So why? Well… sometimes, I just have to lead in by talking about something that is so very British that I feel a warning is necessary. Because no matter how hard you try, you will rarely find anything more quintessentially part of the UK than Radio 4.

So, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know—Radio 4 is a BBC radio station, pretty much exclusively devoted to the spoken word rather than music. It does news and drama, comedy and documentaries. Oh, and the Shipping Forecast, the most oddly relaxing broadcast you have ever heard. Unless you ever fallen asleep to a soft yet authoritative voice reciting a litany of sea areas, giving wind strength, direction and visibility in various sea areas, you cannot appreciate its effect. Even now, if you go up to a Briton of a certain age and intone “South Utsire, Southwest 5 or 6, backing south or southeast 3 or 4…” you will see a smile of serene bliss pass over their face.

Radio 4 is responsible for a lot of things in my life. It is responsible for my sense of humour, which is distinctly wordy and surreal. It is responsible for the odder areas of my knowledge—not every station would broadcast a documentary about the rise of Alphabetical Order, or the badger campaigners of the Lake District. But above all, with its regular readings from new works and classics alike, it has sustained my love of audiobooks.

Because more and more, I find myself addicted to audiobooks. Part of it is practical, of course—they make almost any kind of chore bearable, not to mention drowning out the relentless local radio at the gym. There is something delicious about being able to enjoy a good story without having to occupy your eyes and hands with a book—like being fed grapes by servants. And yet, I hear surprisingly often that people never listen to audiobooks.

When we’re little, of course, everyone loves to have books read aloud to them. Even when we are beginning to puzzle out words for ourselves, an adult’s comforting tones—doing the characters’ voices, drawing out the tension, is one of the most pleasurable introductions to fiction I can think of.

But this is a joy that we often abandon too quickly. Once we are confident with reading to ourselves, audiobooks can seem childish, or even intrusive. We don’t want to hear someone else reading it, we’re much happier with the voices in our head.

…hang on, I think that came out wrong.

I understand the problems. It’s a lesser version of the film adaptation, it can never be the same as you imagined it—every character sounds wrong and the reader isn’t giving it the right inflection/reading at the right speed/paying it the respect it deserves.

I know where this opinion is coming from, but to me, that’s as odd as the Romantic poets claiming that Shakespeare shouldn’t actually be performed, because actors have to settle on one interpretation for each line. For me, the joy of a well-read audiobook is to appreciate the reader’s performance, adding the reader’s skill in inflecting, and pointing up images that would never have occurred to you on your own. It becomes a three-way process: writer, reader and listener collaborating on creating a world.

When I’m enjoying a book, I tend to rush. I can’t help it—it grips me, and I bolt it down, never consciously skipping, but losing out on reams of subtlety and beautiful crafting. A good audiobook stops that—it forces you to go at the speed of the reader, to hear the words as carefully as the writer put them on the page.

And I don’t just mean with other people’s work. I must admit, the reason that this is on my mind at the moment is that I’ve just received the audiobook of The Midnight Charter and I’ve already spotted at least five images that I wasn’t even conscious of putting in. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that book over during writing and editing, I honestly thought I knew it back to front. But of course, once it is seized upon by the resonant tones of Simon Vance (who is a true master of audiobook narration and I am thrilled to have him reading mine), it gains something entirely new.

Because you’re not just hearing the book—you are hearing the book being read, with all of the interpretation and creativity and interaction that this implies. As a writer, it is the closest I can get to how someone else experiences my work, short of quizzing my friends—and frankly, they’d get tired if I asked for a report on every single line.

When Phillip Pullman was asked about the recent film adaptation of The Golden Compass, one critic asked him if he was worried about “what they had done to his book.” Pullman replied by pointing up to the bookshelf, and saying, “They haven’t done anything to it. Look! There it is.” I’d never say that audiobooks can replace the experience of reading alone, or the feeling and smell of a good book in your hands. But sometimes, they can open up a whole new side to a familiar story, or introduce you to something you would never have taken the time to read. And you can get on with the ironing at the same time, which is a bonus.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Afternoon Play is starting on Radio 4. It’s called I wish to Apologise for my part in the Apocalypse, and I’d hate to miss it…

[Image circa 1920, via Old Picture of the Day.]


David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.

15 comments
Ken Walton
1. carandol
(suffering a smile of serene bliss at the mention of South Utsere...)

I'm not that keen on audiobooks, but you'll be pleased to know that the Victorian art of reading aloud is not dead. I've got friends with whom, whenever we get together, we share reading to each other. If I spend a long weekend with them, we can get through a whole novel, reading a chapter each and passing it on, or one person reading while the others do the cooking, or whatever.

The reading is usually interspersed with breaks to look things up in the dictionary, heated discussions about character motives, what the author meant by that, etc.

I also sometimes read books aloud to myself, just because they *are* different aloud; in fact there are writers whose work I *only* enjoy aloud -- Lord Dunsany springs to mind.
drxray
2. drxray
There's a song on Thomas Dolby's album The Golden age of wireless called "Windpower". At the end of the song a voice comes on and starts reciting weather conditions

"Steering on, North-west, heading north, 4 or 5 with variable three in South of fast
Showers in East, good
Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Northerly four to six, locally seven, decreasing three or four, locally five
Showers at first, good
Shannon, Rod Hall, North-West...

I never knew what it was till now. Thanks
drxray
3. pericat
Audiobooks let me look forward to chores. Much weeding would have gone undone without them.

Downside: people keep trying to talk to me. Hi! You've dropped your wallet! Want to come to dinner tomorrow? You're under arrest! and so on. Perhaps I should wear a sign...
drxray
4. Nicholas Waller
drxray @ 2 - and by the magic of Spotify I can dial up that Thomas Dolby track - which I never heard before - within five seconds and have a listen.

You can see a map of sea areas round the UK - Viking, Trafalgar, Biscay, German Bight and all - and should be able to hear a recent real Radio 4 shipping forecast at this site: http://www.southamptonweather.co.uk/shippingforecast-audio.php
Tudza White
5. tudzax1
The audio book for The Golden Compass kicks some serious ass. I usually hate audio books that have more than one reader and I don't like dramatizations, but these are unabridged readings by a really well chosen cast.

"Are you sitting comfortably,
as Merlyn cast his spell."
drxray
6. DemetriosX
I'm going to have to come down on the side opposed to audio books. I have a deeply, deeply visceral negative reaction to anybody reading more than about 3 sentences to me. Even with excellent readers like Stephen Fry or Neil Gaiman, I soon have an overwhelming desire to rip the book from the reader's hands and beat him or her senseless with it. I've been that way ever since I have been able to read for myself. (Shakespeare and so on is different, because those words were written to be spoken. It is an entirely different process.)

Now part of it is, as you suggest, the insufficiency/wrongness argument. But for me it is much more than that. I dislike the forced pace. I can't stop for a moment and think about a passage that has just been read, if my attention wanders for a moment, it is very difficult to get back to where I was. It is simply less immersive.

As for the shipping forecast, it makes me think of a bit that Dr. Demento used to play a lot of the shipping forecast (or was it the weather report) being sung by a choir. Strangely beautiful.
Del C
7. del
Because no matter how hard you try, you will rarely find anything more quintessentially part of the UK than Radio 4.

I would modify that to "quintessentially part of the UK middle class than Radio 4." It's a lot less quintessential outside the middle class.
Liza .
8. aedifica
Oh, and the Shipping Forecast, the most oddly relaxing broadcast you have ever heard.

Where and when I grew up, sometimes at noon the public radio station would have their weather forecaster Elwynn Taylor on to discuss weather conditions. He had the most soothing, slow and gentle voice I've ever heard, and I was always glad he wasn't on the air when anyone sleepy was likely to be driving home.
drxray
9. MatiasD
Until the last month i didn't like audiobooks, they remind me to some science fiction stories where there no more real books and the only thing close to it is a machine reading. But i give it a try to the graveyard book by Neil Gaiman and i fell in love with them.

Now i love the audiobooks and in the bus i often listen audiobooks instead of music.


PS: sorry for my english.
Brandy Thomas
10. Roese
No Shipping Forecast in the Midwest but that same blissfully calm look comes over me when I hear the "Farm Report". So much about corn, soybeans and wheat that is always said in such a soothing way.

I am not a fan of audio books myself. It's actually not the voices that bother me, I just have a hard time concentrating on just listening to someone read. I fidget and lose concentration and if I happen to be doing something else at the time like laundry or whatnot the book just fades to background noise which I tune out.
Ian Gazzotti
11. Atrus
I think a problem with audiobooks is that people expect them to be, well, books: a better name would be audioplays, even for those that are not written specifically for the medium but 'simple' readings of books and novels.

As some said in the comments here, they can't get into audiobooks because they expect the pace to be the same as when they're reading a book, i.e. under their control; one can read fast, or slow, or reread the same few lines over and over, doze off a bit and resume reading in a pinch.

Of course, you can't do that in audio: if your attention sways, you lose a bit; if you want to stop, you have to fumble for the pause button. But then, we don't have a problem surrendering control for 45 minutes or two hours when we watch TV, or a movie, or we go to the theater. We don't complain that the actors don't stop for us if we're distracted, or change the pace if we want the story to go faster or lower. The different format implies different expectations and a different fruition method.

So I would suggest to those who can't get into audiobooks: give them another try, but not thinking of them as someone reading a book, but rather more like a play or a TV episode. Give up control, dedicate it your full aural attention and follow the story as it's given to you. You might find that you do actually like them, after all.
Ed Rafferty
12. BigBoy57
I too have fallen in love with audio books recently. My obsession has been with the Wheel of Time books and at about 40 hours per volume it gets me through a lot of train trips to and from work.

I find things I've missed even after the many times I've re-read the books - it just goes to show how much you "skip" when reading. There is the problem though of not being able to skip when somebody else is reading every word to you! I found whole sections of "Lord of Chaos" unbearably boring while listening to it - I guess I must have skipped mightily while reading it myself.

What I haven't done yet is buy an audio book I have not yet read - I wonder if I ever will?

About the shipping weather forecasts - wasn't there a character in the BBC TV series "As Time Goes By" who was fond of listening to and repeating the reports to all and sundry?
adrian bellis
13. Nilrem
Reading this has reminded me how much I used to really enjoy Book at Bedtime when I was younger, but got out of the habit of tuning in as I got older.
These days I tend to catch the weekly serial on and off almost by chance unless a title catches my eye.

There is still something special about listening to a well read story, even if you've heard it read before, or read it yourself.
It's like any performing art, every reader (performer/actor) brings a bit of themselves to it, some not so great, others can really bring it to life.

All of which reminds me I've got a couple of the Discworld Audio Books that I was given but have never got round to listening to, I'll have to give them a go.
Chuk Goodin
14. Chuk
The only thing I have against audiobooks is that they are so slow! The other only thing is that they're usually harder to pick up and put down, you either have to put in headphones or be somewhere alone or where everyone else wants to listen to the same book as you.

I have listened to some audio short stories like from Escape Pod. Some of them are very well done (I have a slight bias as a friend has read a few stories for them & Podcastle), but I'd still prefer to spend 15 minutes reading something to 90 minutes listening to someone else read it.

Oh, and the last only thing I don't like is that it's harder to go back and check on something.
Elizabeth Coleman
15. elizabethcoleman
My Dad's recently gotten into audiobooks. I have fond memories of Christmas, my dad sitting with a blanket in his lap in a wingback chair, head tipped back and eyes closed, his bluetooth set in his ear and his laptop on the windowsill.

Me, in general I like to be able to pause reading whenever I want and stare into space while I meditate on the material, but I also like to do crafts, and there's nothing better than listening to someone read to me while working on my finger calluses. I like short story podcasts the best. And NPR. Mmm... Prairie Home Companion.

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