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Video killed the audiobook

5th March 2012 - Ben Sweeney

 

With the constant discussion of ebooks, the humble audiobook rarely gets much press, but they remain hugely poular with booklovers. After a childhood listening to his favourite books on tape before being distracted by the glamour of television, Ben Sweeney has recently rediscovered the joys of listening to literature.

 

I'm fairly ashamed to admit it as someone who makes a living by words printed on paper that I'd sooner watch a film or TV adaptation than read a lot of popular fiction. In some cases I find myself unaware of the fiction until I have seen the adaptation.

 

Great Expectations original film posterThe most recent example is probably A Game of Thrones, which I barely noticed in its written form, despite its enormous presence on the bookshelf. Until HBO plastered advertising for their version all across the internet. I had watched all of the BBC Jane Austen adaptations before reading a single word of Austen. And I'm deeply familiar with the David Lean's Great Expectations, whereas Dickens' novel is a vague memory. Three times I have tried to read The Lord of the Rings, and three times I have given up at the same point half way through the third book; I can quote the films with the keenest of fans.

 

I blame this entirely on the fact that I grew up without a TV. So when the screen entered into my life I found myself entirely entranced, like a rabbit in the glare of headlights. Only I was a rabbit who mixed my metaphors and quickly developed an addiction for it.

 

As a child I devoured books, but barely touched the literary classics. It took visualisations to push me in that direction.

 

While I did not devour the classical greats, I would still argue that the books I read were ranked highly among the children's greats. Wolf and The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Charmed Life and the rest of the Chestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Just William by Richmal Crompton. The Falcon's Malteser by Anthony Horowitz. All books I would recommend to children without a moment's hesitation.

 

Better still than reading these books was listening to them. My taste for passive entertainment didn't begin with TV. That began with audiobooks. The Demon Headmaster read in the jolly tones of Judy Bennett was one of the first I discovered. I enjoyed her readings so much that I virtually stole the tapes from the library. It was only when I learned that you could copy from tape to tape that I did return them.

 

Better still than Judy Bennett was Martin Jarvis. He has one of the most soothing voices. Possibly the only soother voice is that bass tone that produces the shipping forecast. And his subtle, silky tones revealed all the satirical elements of Just William that I was far too young to gather by reading by myself.

 

There is something so much more informative about having the story read to you. Perhaps it is simply the other perspective which is so interesting. The children in The Demon Headmaster had always had adult voices in my head, but Judy Bennett made them sound like children. Martin Jarvis brought a regionality to the characters that an untravelled child like myself couldn't imagine.

 

Then the TV began and audiobooks disappeared from my life.

 

I've recently discovered audiobooks again, almost by accident. I read an Ayn Rand book, which turned out very much to not be my thing. Yet at the same time I found it fascinating, like the surgery scenes in Casualty. I couldn't bring myself to read more, but I wanted to know more. So I obtained an audiobook to listen to on my journeys around London. I can't say I found it exciting, but it definitely added some colour to the walking.

 

Terry DearyShortly after that I tried listening to a book I had wanted to read for some time but never quite got round to reading: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Read by the author himself. That was certainly a novelty. The only time before that I had heard an author read their own work was at a book signing for Terry Deary's Horrible Histories. Terry Deary didn't just read, he provided full characters, limping back and forth as a Roman beggar, crouching in the corner as a sheltering soldier.

 

Writers giving advice to new writers always say that if you want to know your work is right, then read it aloud. If you can't read it aloud, then it needs fixing.

 

Listening to Bill Bryson's own reading was a thoroughly charming experience. His voice sounded exactly the way I had expected, the work flowed as smoothly as if he had ad-libbed the entire thing, and I found myself happily listening a second time to pick up on information I had missed the first time.

 

Likewise Tony Robinson's voice and Stephen Fry's voice are perfectly matched to the prose of Discworld and Harry Potter respectively, so perfectly that it is difficult not to hear their voices as you read. Unlike Tony Blair's autobiography; having grown so used to hearing his voice deliver sharp, clipped, perfectly formed soundbites, it is a curiosity to hear him talk in full sentences.

 

First-time authors are often told that they have to work hard to promote their own work. A publishing deal doesn't normally come with a reasonable advertising budget, and one thing that author's tend to do in self-promotion is go around bookshops and do readings from their works. Which strikes me as a humbling way to find someone's work. I have found two authors I greatly appreciate this way, Anneke Campbell and Catherine Johnson; their unassuming, gentle readings were quite captivating.

 

Unfortunately writers need to write, and cannot spend all their time hanging round in bookshops giving free readings. And that's what's great about audiobooks.


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