Friday, 11 September 2009
Like London buses, you wait for a blog post for ages and then two come along at once! I am in the middle of several jobs but waiting for something to happen in every case before I can proceed further, so shall use the time to muse here.
I wanted to say a word about audiobooks. I have always, throughout my bookwormy life, been a voracious reader, slower than my partner but relishing the process just as much in my way. He says I am a hobbit; I am happiest when I know how the story will end, pleased that the conventions of the genre are respected. I like storylines to resolve. All true. I would add though that I am not immune to the quality of the prose or to the interpenetration of big ideas and themes with a swiftly moving plot.
Perhaps because I now accumulate piles of textbooks that I must read, attentively, as I work my way through successive modules of a postgrad degree, or perhaps because I spend so much time these days in surfing the quick moving internets and focusing on quick bursts of communication, I read little now, off the page, for pleasure.
I do, however, listen to audiobooks. Even in the old days of the Sony Walkperson, I would occasionally buy a book tape and listen to it. Some I recall very fondly. These were huge box sets: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster by David Attenborough, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, hundreds of them over the years...
Then came the Age of the iPod and, from iTunes, I can download many many books and listen at my desk as I do dull work on the computer, on tubes and trains and buses as I traverse South London (which I do frequently to get to and from bits of work), or just around the house as I clean and tidy and vacuum and pair socks.
I find I say often to people that I have ‘read’ a book when what I mean is that I have listened to another read the book for me. There is little distinction in my mind between the two except that I read one book these days for every half a dozen to which I listen.
I prefer the unabridged offerings and some of those can run to 12 or 24 hours’ worth of recording. I can be listening attentively at one point and then go off woolgathering, only to realise half a chapter has slipped by, so I find I rerun and review the spoken text very frequently. I do that with books too though, rereading pages at a time, either because I am puzzled about a development in the narrative and have to backtrack, or because of the particular quality of a piece of prose.
Recently, I have enjoyed all of Boris Akunin’s (Erast Petrovich) Fandorin thriller novels: The Winter Queen, The Turkish Gambit, The Murder on the Leviathan, The Death of Achilles, and The State Counsellor. They’re all set in late Imperialist Russia, spanning the reign of Alexander III. Some, like the State Counsellor, were wonderfully read. Others were less so. You’d think it would be basic when reading a novel set in Russia, translated from the Russian, where everyone has Russian names, that the narrator would have learned how to pronounce those names (and the few Russian terms used in the books) correctly. I doubt that I would have read these in print but I find I enjoy thrillers much more as audiobooks.
When I listen to U.S. voices reading American novels, I notice some linguistic quirks that I haven’t picked up from American friends. Such as, the word ‘shone’, past tense of ‘to shine’. In the U.K. that’s pronounced ‘shawn’. In the U.S. it seems it’s pronounced ‘shoan’. In at least three recent audiobooks, I have observed this pronunciation. In general, the standard of locution is high. I marvel at the number of slight variations some narrators can produce to differentiate between characters. It’s quite an acting job, I would imagine.
So, hooray for audiobooks! Why then do I feel slightly ashamed of my increasing reliance on the iPod as the medium for enjoying fiction? I read more reviews in the Sunday papers of new audiobooks than I do of new literary fiction. I rage at iTunes for the absence of some favourite texts or unread text by favourite authors. I like the fact that they seem to growing cheaper all the time - I can download some texts that run to 20 or more hours for less than a tenner and yet some bestselling thrillers last 2-3 hours and cost twice that. Well, that’s a nonsense. I will be reading those in paperback then…