Like many other writers I have an abiding passion for books. In my long life I have read many hundreds of thousands books for the purposes of pleasure, for research, for information, and for inspiration. Then there is the added ultimate pleasure of meeting like minds through words on a page written many years ago.
In my long life as a writer the books I have read have been my model - in informing in various ways the direction and the spread of my own writing. For me life without books would be a vacuum, a desert. Without the books in my life I would never have dared to write my own stories and allow them to be shared with strangers. Perhaps like my mother and her four sisters I would have been stuck with telling the stories round the tea table, the children listening eagerly underneath the table.*
So far so good.
However, all this reading appears to have wreaked havoc on my eyes, rendering one of them only usable by default and the other occasionally giving up the ghost. Medical intervention has helped to a degree but the days of reading quickly, skimming and scanning for information has lurched to a stop.
I can still read, but not for long periods of time and not – as was mostly the case – at speed. All that skimming and scanning was that had been so useful for research and context has rather petered out.
And then – as I said in the earlier post - along came Kindle, bringing new possibilities – not least the possibility of enlarging print for ease of definition. It has proved useful for research and exploring new titles. My reading on Kindle very much reflected and endorsed my established reading choices.
“But it’s not the same!” So many people say. Me too! I have to say. For me reading books has always been a sensual experience – the bright artwork on the covers; the smell of new paper; the crisp feeling as I flick through the pages of a new book.
These days I do still read books - somewhat slowly I admit. But I do mourn my regular encounter with the new titles in paper, between covers. These days I tend to read poetry. With poems one can absorb a whole concept or story in a much shorter space – just one or two, sometimes three pages. These encounters are both bracing and inspiring. In recent times I’ve been revisiting the ineffable poet American Robert Hass whose poems of walk through his life and mine; and Maya Angelou whose poems are songs reflecting the light and dark 20th century history. And I am rediscovering the dark nature of poet Ted Hughes and the hearing the magical rhythms of William Butler Yeats. As well as this I have loved reading the new work of my friend Avril Joy – inspired literary insights into diverse modern experience.
And yet in all this I miss the regular encounters with new books and savouring the anticipation the pile of books waiting the bedside table.
My favourite mantra in these challenging days is ‘in every problem there lies a possible solution.’ In my case this problem of reading in substantive quantities has been solved by my discovering and embracing reading in audiobook form.
Eureka! By this means I am now reading as much and as quickly and as widely as ever I have. It is worth noting here that this activity engages the sense not mentioned as yet - the crucial sense of hearing.
Such a delight.
Interestingly, in enthusing about all this I have met more than a degree of literary snobbery. In the air is the vague suggestion that this – listening on earphones to someone reading a great writer’s work – doesn’t count as “reading”. One might even infer from certain comments that this way of reading is to some degree lazy, even inferior.
So I have decided to “come out” as an audio reader and boldly to say “I am reading Hilary Mantel’s new novel The Mirror and the Light. So brilliant. I don’t say listening to. And I say ‘I’m reading John Banville writing as Benjamin Black -all those high literary skills bringing subtle life to novels one might pin night down as psychological/ detective/philosophical narratives.’
So it is that in the last year or so I have read many novels. I counted them up this morning and it seems I have read 49 long novels. In his seminal book On Writing, Stephen King, in adding up his annual consumption of books included all the books he had read on audio; I think his list came to 80 something.
There is something else. I feel now that one should recognise that audio books actually offer added value to readers in the skills and nature of the person who narrates the story. This is a very high skill and makes a crucial difference in the way that one reads a book. The voice of the narrator can make or break your own reading of the book. In some cases I have to admit that for me some of the narrations can lessen the impact of the book. But the novel can only be enhanced by the talent of a narrator whose skills allow the writer’s voice to come through richly, clear and true.
Among these I would list Peter Forbes reading the novels of Peter May, James Buchanan reading Ian Rankin, Gerry O’Brien reading of Galway writer Ken Bruen. Then there is John Keating reading Benjamin Black/John Banville. And Ben Miles reading Hilary Mantel. I also really admire Ann Dover’s reading of some of my own novels; she tackles the north-east intonations with insight and subtlety - no easy thing.
Looking at this I think perhaps I might be accused of some bias towards the Celtic voice – which might, I suppose, reflect some of my own deep heritage. But there is musicality there which doesn’t resort to flat actorish Received Pronunciation.
Audio reading is blossoming all over the place these days, edging its way into long car and bus journeys, into long afternoons in the garden, into the boredom of hospital waiting rooms. And now we have the enforced isolation engendered by the epidemic I feel it will broaden its appeal even further.
Self-isolation may not be such a deep punishment when we can add to our list of books read ad infinitum; we can track the work of certain writers we love and find writers who may illuminate our confined lives. Audio reading is great for fiction but in my experience is also great for disciplines like philosophy, sociology and psychology. Even writing from the classical world is available in this form.
For some people, probably like myself, for whom book reading has become more difficult, audio reading adds to and intensifies the traditional benefits of having all those books on your bedside table. I can see that in this time isolation, even confinement, that audio reading could very much facilitate online reading groups or WhatsApp discussion groups.
So, in this time of crisis, whatever the state of our eyes, in addition to our singing, painting, jigsawing, and reading actual paperbacks, we can explore and extend our enhanced and enriched literary range by reading in Audio, whether we do it on our own or as a member an online group.
Our aim for the duration of this crisis has to be that we spend time rather than just pass it till things get better. Which they will.