It’s #LoveAudio week! I’ve loved seeing posts across social media about all the wonderful audiobooks currently (or soon-to-be) available.
This format is, I think, a very good step in the right direction for making books more accessible to audiences. For many, reading a book isn’t possible, so bringing stories to life with fantastic audio productions helps the book-loving community remain open to more people. Whether they are downloaded onto mobile devices or played via CD, this format is more portable, and so can be enjoyed easily at home and while out and about. There are also some fantastic subscription options available for various audiobook retailers, so audio can be more financially beneficial as well. That’s before I even mention how well-stocked libraries are of audiobooks.
I was first recommended audiobooks by a friend in 2016. I was slightly dubious at first – I’d struggled with digital formats, and I thought audiobooks might be a similar struggle. Looking back, I find it hilarious that one of my biggest concerns was ‘But what about my eyes?! What will they do? How will they manage not ‘seeing’ the book?’ Even though I have some minor issues with my sight, I’ve always been a visual learner – my revision notes were bright, multi-coloured mind maps, with mini diagrams sprinkled throughout.
So it seemed unimaginable that I would take to audiobooks – be able to concentrate on the narrative without seeing it on a page.
How happy am I that I was wrong?
My first download was Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, narrated by Pippa Bennett-Warner. The narrative shifts between times and places a lot, and if anything, that was initially difficult to track as I listened. I found that I really had to concentrate and zone out of my surroundings to stay in touch with what was happening. When I’m reading a book, my eyes are focussed on the page, and even if I skip over some words, I can still get the gist of it. When I listen, even in a silent room, my ears naturally pick up other sounds, and my eyes will focus on something else, and suddenly the narrative moves without my noticing. That’s what I had to learn to do – focus the mind on listening.
Apart from that initial challenge, though, Swing Time was perfect. Bennett-Warner beautifully captured Smith’s prose (always so intelligently layered) and the nuances in the characters. The scenes that focussed on the energy and power of music were stunning – I was swept away as much by Bennett-Warner’s voice as I was by the narrative Smith created.
Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve was also a really great audiobook experience. It’s a tense, emotional narrative that looks at themes of home, identity, memory, and friendship, and there was something special about hearing this rather than reading it. Alix Dunmore’s narration is great, delving into these characters’ emotions and motivations with such resonating power. This book also shifted in perspectives, time, and place, but as I’d become used to the format by this point, it was a breeze to listen to.
Listening to Tom Hank’s Uncommon Type was an unusual experience, mainly because listening to a voice so ingrained in my childhood (I watched Toy Story too many times to recall) narrate books with adult plots and themes was just odd. They were engaging stories that I thought were crafted really well and Hanks performs them magnificently, but I just kept thinking ‘Woody’s voice should not be saying this’. A listener issue, not a performance one.
Now, I could hardly talk about audiobooks without mentioning the Harry Potter series narrated by Stephen Fry. I know it’s clichéd to say it, but these are honestly magical. To be the sole performer for such an immense cast of characters demonstrates what a talent Fry is. Now, I’m not a great fan of his performance of Tonks, but that takes nothing away from his achievement across the series. When I’m struggling to read or listen to another book, I’ll pick a Harry Potter audiobook at random and listen to a chapter or two, just to re-focus and re-energise, and it always works. If I’m struggling to sleep, or need to calm down, or simply want something familiar to listen to while I’m driving, these audiobooks are my first choice. It’s that comforting familiarity, not just of the story but now of Stephen Fry’s performance, that settles my mind. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, and haven’t listened to these yet, I’d fully recommend them!
Obviously, not every audiobook gels with the listener: I’ve struggled with nonfiction a lot, notably What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. Sometimes, it’s the book itself – how it’s structured or the content – and other times, it’s performance. Often, my own concentration stops me getting into an audiobook properly.
Overall, though, I’ve had more enjoyment than difficulty with the format, and I’m so happy my friend persisted in encouraging me to try it all those months ago.
Do you listen to audiobooks? What are your favourites?