A certain stigma has attached itself to audiobooks. To the old school bibliophile, they are the literary equivalent of pre-chewed steak.
The sceptics may have a point. After all, reading is tiring for the same reason that chewing is - work is being done. The brain is just a lump of clever fat, of course, rather than bunched muscle, but it still uses up some 20 per cent of the calories we consume and so it shouldn’t really be surprising that we get tired reading.
Taking the sequenced squiggles on the page and converting them into the architecture of a story, a philosophy or a verse, is hard. Children find it hard, students find it very hard and the vast majority of adults find it gets harder and harder as time goes on. This is bad news for books. If adulthood meansgiving yourself permission to eat ice cream instead of spinach, who is going to choose books, when Netflix and GTA VI are on the menu? Yet, to echo Dorothy Parker's famous remark about writing, as much as we might hate reading, we love having read. So, what to do?
Audiobooks are like E-Bikes. They attract some opprobrium from purists but they are far more likely to keep the time-poor masses pedalling on into old age, than they are to weaken the resolve of those who would otherwise remain sinewy and self-reliant for ever.
Audiobooks eliminate much of the dread that few of us would admit to having at the prospect of picking up a book. You still have to follow the story, of course, but you don’t have to worry if you drop your attention for a line or two. The story will dangle patiently like mittens from your sleeve, ready for you as soon as you notice.
They are not perfect. Some narrators just grate, whether with their accents or their tempos, their characterisations or their rhythms. Some of them irritate in precisely the way that Classic FM announcers do, radiating a sort of smug self-congratulation about how virtuous we all are for loving books. And even with the best of them, one occasionally hears an emphasis being placed where one would not have chosen to put it oneself, and one has to pause and mentally repair the damage.
But generally, this is more akin to quality control than assembly. Meanwhile, the river of text flows smoothly on, and if you simply listen long enough, eventually, like the bodies of your enemies, an entire book will pass before your inner eyes.
And Audiobooks still require a degree of brain power. As an intellectual pursuit, they far surpass the film or TV adaptation. Those are the ready meals of entertainment. Audio books are more like real cooking but with pre-grated cheese, shop bought tomato puree, and an electric whisk.
I have been a keen listener to audio books for about eight years now, but only really upped my game during lockdown. Since the comedy clubs were closed and gigging was not an option, I wanted to use the time at my disposal to make some progress in my reading pile, but found all the usual distractions magnified tenfold by the added anxieties of the pandemic, and the bomb crater where my career used to be. Audio books saved me from despair.
And so, they have now become something approaching an addiction for me, my default mode. I wear my headphones around the house like a truculent teenager blotting out the existence of his family with Norwegian Death Metal. I listen at speeds of up to and beyond 2x, which I find perhaps counter-intuitively, demands my full engagement and concentration and keeps me locked in. And means I regularly complete whole books in a single day. And my mind has once again become furnished with the rich tapestries of fiction and myth, of great writing, and of other people's loftier thoughts.
I hope to share a few of these reads with you over the coming months. Join me next month as I start - where else? - with Homer. The motherlode, the foundation stone, the mine from which the whole edifice of western lit is quarried. And as is the one thing we all remember from even the most rudimentary English education - rooted in the oral tradition, and singularly suited to the medium under discussion. Sing, Muse! Sing!