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.


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