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Barbara Kay: Listening to a good book

Only one of my eyes has ever worked well enough to read. Besides that, in my 20s I was diagnosed with a chronic ophthalmic inflammation that requires daily cortisone drops to control. Some versions of my condition can lead to blindness, but I’ve been lucky.

Gratitude for the gift of sight, along with a skulking dread of going blind, has therefore been a constant mental companion pretty well all my life. Losing the ability to read books was a punishment too horrible to contemplate. And yet of course I did contemplate it, and often. Sometimes I mused about learning Braille prophylactically, but that seemed to my superstitious mind too much like an invitation to mischievous fates. 

Audiobooks gave me comfort, even when they were on bulky cassettes. I mean, knowing they were there just “in case” at first. Then we got into the habit of listening to them in the car on long trips. Then on short trips. First on CDs. But now on my iPod or smartphone. And not just on car trips, but out walking and biking.

Audio books have come into their own in a big way. The world will listen to two billion hours of content in 2016, double the 2014 hours., where I get my material, was bought by Amazon in 2008. Their membership is up 40 per cent in 2015 over 2014, and, according to Audible’s founder and chief executive Donald Katz, this is a “a massive turning point.”

Interestingly, research shows that the 18-34 demographic is downloading 45 per cent of audio books. So young people are still “reading,” they’re just doing it in the multitasking style that characterizes their entire way of life.

Because of the demand and the profits, more and better readers are getting into the narrational game. Listening to a book was already quite a different aesthetic experience from traditional reading. But the talent of A-list actors is making it a cross between reading and theatregoing. The voice of Roy Dotrice, narrator of Game of Thrones, and long one of Britain’s finest actors (he’s well into his 90s), kept us enthralled for over 200 driving hours.

I am using audio books to fill in reading gaps I am embarrassed to admit. I found James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man easy going, but his renowned Ulysses defeated me. Yet a few months ago, I downloaded and listened to the unexpurgated Ulysses, narrated in the same Irish brogue Joyce heard in his head while writing it, with great pleasure.

I’m particularly fond of BBC broadcasts. Their audio books, podcasts and short series are beautiful productions. I’ve been listening to their British-history-for-dummies series (they don’t call it that, they call it This Sceptred Isle), in which they offer units covering the main events, ideas and characters dominating different periods going back to the year dot, neutrally and soothingly narrated in that plummy accent we struggle to hate, but wish we owned.

But what’s really to die for is the BBC’s full-cast audio novels. I’ve had two extraordinary listening experiences so far.

The first was their six-hour full-cast rendition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It wasn’t the full novel, but I was never going to read the whole thing anyway, and in these six hours of exquisite narration and dialogue, I finally “discovered” Proust in a way that I believe was far superior to a traditional reading experience. I was never so sorry to finish a “book.” The other was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, also expurgated. In this case I had read the book and been enthralled by the TV series, but happily put in the four listening hours to relive and enhance the original pleasure.

One of the great joys of these performances as I age and as memory of the written word fades is that I can still remember the voices and the story line of audio books for years afterward. (I can remember precisely where I was walking about 10 years ago when I listened to peak scenes from Into Thin Air, the riveting novel about climbing Everest written and narrated by Jon Krakauer.) Scenes from the Proust and Waugh performances are vividly in my mind’s eye as I write this.

I read War and Peace in my 20s. I know I didn’t fully appreciate it, but haven’t got the patience for a traditional reread, so I intend to do that on audio book. But that won’t please my husband. For car trips we need books we both enjoy. I took a chance lately on Larry McMurtry, whom I’d never read, another shameful lacuna, with Telegraph Days, one of his shorter books. We like it! Now I can order his long and more famous Lonesome Dove.

Maybe Audible will send it to me for free when they read this column.

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