I love reading, but I don’t get much time to sit down and lose myself in a book. If I’m not writing, I’m either working in the garden or cooking. Then there’s the pesky housework, running errands, and appointments, which eat into my reading time. For all those moments, I turn to my mobile.
I use my phone continuously when I’m not working, although I make no more than a dozen calls a year. The rest of the time I’m using my mobile to listen to documentaries, drama, or audio books.
My smartphone might be the latest technology, but it is part of an ancient tradition. This twenty-first century device answers a demand that echoes across millenia.
Tell me a story!
For centuries we’ve enjoyed the feel, the fragrance, and the experience of reading books. Those are only recent pleasures in the history of storytelling. Thousands of years ago, communication between our distant ancestors would have been limited to “That’s mine!”, “Go away!” or “Look out—wild boar!”.
The genius who first thought to turn news of a grisly border dispute into an adventure story, or created a saga out of the search for new hunting grounds kept audiences spellbound around the campfire.
When these stories began to be written down, the tradition of oral storytelling faded into the background but never disappeared completely. The intimacy between speaker and audience is entirely different from the solitary pleasure of reading. In a family like mine, where one or more members have literacy problems, listening to stories is also an enjoyable way to learn.
When I was growing up, we lived with my grandparents. Both my grandfather and father were bookworms. There was neither money nor space for books in our house. Instead, we had the Daily Express and the Bristol Evening Post delivered daily, and both Dad and Grampy were active members of the local library. The Reader’s Digest arrived every month, until—as the old joke went—we were forced to move house to give them the slip.
My grandfather had been a career soldier. That meant he knew how to pick his battles. My grandmother was very house-proud, so to avoid getting underfoot while our home was being cleaned from top to bottom every day, Grampy would retreat into my playpen and read to me.
I assume he began with all the children’s classics. By the time of my earliest memories he had moved on to much more exotic fare. Two stories I remember from well before I started school were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. After hearing how noisy toddlers were dealt with on the Native American trail, and how sardine-loving Asmodeus ended up being the “cat” in “catapult”, it’s no wonder I was a quiet child.
On my first day at primary school I was excited to hear there would be storytime every afternoon. The worthy exploits of Ant and Bee came as a terrible anticlimax!
I did enjoy some stories aimed at children. Dad read daily instalments of The Adventures of Rupert Bear to me from the newspaper at bedtime every night. Each Christmas my presents included the annuals of both Rupert, and Carl Giles’s cartoons. The GIles book must have been my father’s gift to himself for having to read all those hours and hours of Rupert to me during the rest of the year.
“Daddy! You’ve turned over two pages! And don’t forget to read the lines under the pictures as well, not just the story!”
It’s a wonder I survived.
My mother was a ferocious businesswoman who could calculate any sum, percentage, or yield in her head with amazing speed. In contrast, her reading skills were poor. In order to spot local opportunities she relied on my father reading to her from the newspaper. Once, someone she was keen to impress lent her a copy of Elephant Bill by Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Williams. It was the only time I ever saw her with a book in her hands. She struggled with it for a few minutes, then told me to read the book and tell her the story. An audio version would have been perfect in that situation. By the way, if you can get your hands on a copy of Elephant Bill , it’s a great read.
I wrote here abou beginning Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. I’ve finished listening to the twenty-hour long audiobook now, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. If only my teachers at school had combined the talents of Fraser and the Audible version’s narrator Eleanor Bron, I would have managed better than a grade “D” in history!
I found only slight disadvantages to the audiobook version. Some of the phrases in French weren’t provided with a translation. That was annoying, as it pulled me out of the story. Had I been reading a physical book, I could have tapped the words straight into Google translate. With the audio version, no sooner had they been spoken than they disappeared into the air.
That was only a small irritation, as was Antonia Fraser’s constant overuse of the word nevertheless. If I had been reading a physical book I probably wouldn’t have noticed. However, Eleanor Bron must have tired of reading the word early on. She often gave a slight but significant pause before saying it yet again (three times in as many sentences, in one particularly annoying example).
The spoken word has a strength which can’t be contained within the covers of a book. Hearing a text get the human treatment can help with understanding. Listening allows people to enjoy the experience of reading when it isn’t possible to hold a book, or see the text. On the other hand, there’s a particular pleasure in opening the cover of a book and turning pages, inhaling its individual perfume, and enjoying the words at your own pace. Audiobooks will never replace that.
Which do you prefer—a book in your hand, or a word in your ear?