Listening to Joseph Anton

josephantonI’ve been continuing my audio book experiment, with mixed success. People were right to caution me to sample a lot, because a narrator you don’t like can really turn you off even a book you’re otherwise quite interested in. Finding books that I can follow easily enough by ear is also not as straightforward as I expected: the book has to be engaging enough to keep me attending but not so intricate that the slightest wavering of my attention is fatal.

But the biggest challenge so far, and one I somehow hadn’t anticipated, is just how long it takes to listen to, instead of read, a book. This is a practical issue, in the sense that the books I borrow from the library keep expiring before I’ve finished with them. And it is also a commitment issue: how many hours of my life am I prepared to spend on a single book, especially when — I’ve realized — I’m not going to retain its details well enough to write about it here? (I miss the tactile engagement with paper pages most when I come across a line I’d like to come back to and have no simple way to bookmark it or jot down a useful reference.)

mastercommanderaudioOne book I thought was going to be a big success was Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. I read it years ago and enjoyed it; I have always expected that eventually I would make my way through the whole series. When I found that all the books were available from the library as audio books narrated by the highly-recommended Simon Vance, I was excited! I spent several hours listening happily enough to Master and Commander, and Vance is indeed excellent. I became increasingly certain, though, that when I read the book in paper, I had skimmed (not to put to fine a point on it!) over a lot of the details about riggings and fo’castles and 18-pounders — which is not a small proportion of the book. Much as I like Jack Aubrey and his reserved sidekick Stephen Maturin, I just wasn’t up for 13 hours of that.

I am currently listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, and it has been going very well: I was gripped immediately by his account of the initial effects of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, and then drawn into the backstory of Rushdie’s early life and development as a writer. I’ve now made it back to The Satanic Verses and a few months into his life in hiding, and I’m keen to keep going. I am daunted, however, to realize that the unabridged audio book is twenty-six hours! With only a couple of hours a week in which I’m likely to sit and listen, it might be January or February 2016 before I make it to the end — and my library only allows so many renewals. In the 5 or 6 six hours I’ve already listened, too, I could probably have read one or two other books. By comparison, for instance, I read all of my book club’s latest pick, Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, in just a couple of hours over yesterday and today. So what is the opportunity cost of the 20 or so hours remaining on Joseph Anton?

josephantonbookA compromise that occurred to me is to switch to the hard copy, and I might yet make that move. I would like to get to the end one way or another: I’m genuinely interested in what seems to me a story of continuing relevance to our struggle between religious tolerance and expressive freedom. I wonder, though, if in this case I would miss hearing the book: I’m not sure how much Sam Daston’s expressive narration accounts for how much I like it. It seems to me the kind of book that might strike a reader quite differently depending on the tone they think it has. At times Daston conveys a lot of anger and frustration, and also some arrogance, but at other times he sounds profoundly grateful, sincerely puzzled, or engagingly passionate, especially about his (that is, Rushdie’s) ideas and hopes for his novels. What could seem like special pleading, self-pity, or rationalization sounds in Daston’s voice like someone trying hard to tell his own side of a difficult story in which (as he has experienced it) he has had to live with a lot of misrepresentation, not to mention outright hatred. There are certainly some aspects of the book I’m not entirely comfortable with, but some of them come with the territory in a memoir: his reports about his wife Marianne Wiggins’s behavior during their time together in hiding, for instance, or the frequent name-dropping about literary celebrities (but if your friends are Margaret Drabble and Ian McEwan, should you not be able to mention them?).

Anyway, while in this case listening to the book might be making it more appealing, or might have brought out the best in it (which is what any writer should hope for from a narrator), at the same time, in other ways, it has rather hobbled me as a reader. This might mean, in turn, that I would be better off listening to books I won’t end up wanting to write about, especially if they take up so much time that a lot of other books end up unread.

As a side note, I have actually never read any of Rushdie’s novels — only some short fiction. (I don’t suppose this is a ‘Humiliation’ winner?) Listening to Joseph Anton has motivated me to give Midnight’s Children another try: I bought and began it a few years ago and got stuck. Rushdie’s account of his own literary education and influences in his memoir was, for me, among the most interesting parts so far. Maybe when I finish Joseph Anton … so, sometime next March, maybe. 🙂

I’m Listening! My Tentative Steps Towards Audio Books

audiobooks imageI seem to know a lot of people who read (listen to) audio books. They often report what they’ve been listening to, and in addition to my interest in the books they discuss, I’m always interested too in their comments on the narrators — who make a big difference, of course, to the overall experience, adding a dimension that’s not present when we read books to ourselves “silently.” (I put “silently” in scare-quotes because I wonder if we are in fact “hearing” the words in our heads in some way, if that makes sense — we do always talk about “voice” and “tone” in fiction, after all.)

I really like the idea of listening to audio books, but I have always found it difficult to concentrate on them. I don’t feel comfortable simply staring into space while I listen, which would be the audio equivalent of the total concentration I give most books when I read them in print. But even innocuous tasks to keep my hands busy while I listen (crochet, for instance) can occasionally take my mind off the words long enough to throw me off, and there are far too many distractions and interruptions when I’m walking or driving for me to stay focused. Though I sign audio books out of the library intermittently, then, I almost never manage to actually read (listen to) them all the way through.

I realize that there’s absolutely no reason why I need to adapt to audio books. I spend a lot of time with books as it is! And I’m busy and about to get busier, so I should not be looking for ways to while away the time — except that precisely because I’m busy, I like to have pleasant ways to relax, including ways that aren’t watching TV. So I’m trying something slightly different with audio books: instead of signing out new books I’ve been hoping to read, recently I’ve borrowed a couple that I already know well, on the theory that for them it won’t hurt if my attention wanders once in a while. And while I’m listening, I’m coloring, which is both soothing and suitably non-verbal, so I can concentrate quite well on the story.

baloghThe first book I tried this way was Mary Balogh’s Simply Perfect, 2/3 of which is my favorite Balogh novel (the other 1/3, which is scattered across the book, I find kind of annoying, so I skipped bits here and there as I listened). I quite liked the narrator, Rosalyn Landor, though I wish she had not felt obliged to put on “manly” voices for the male characters, especially the hero. Is this a typical thing, to do the characters in different voices? I hope not, but Susan Boyce, the reader of the second book I’ve listened to (Jennifer Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal), did different accents, so I fear it may be. I’d be fine with narrators just reading the dialogue in a natural way, rather than trying to dramatize it. I did still enjoy the stories, though, and listening to a chapter while doing a bit of coloring is definitely a nice way to unwind after a stressful day.

I probably won’t have a lot of time for listening and coloring once term begins, but I will keep experimenting. I’ve been thinking that listening to books is actually a skill of a different kind from reading them on the page, and maybe as I get accustomed to it, I will be able to work in new books and keep track of them better. I don’t think listening would be a good option for really dense or complexly structured books, certainly not for books I intend to write about in detail. But for lighter books that I read for diversion anyway, audio books might be a fine option, if I can learn to listen well enough.

I have already become a bit frustrated with our library’s selection, though. I thought, for instance, that I’d really enjoy listening to Little Women, which I haven’t read in many years, but I sampled the library’s only version and I don’t like the narrator at all. There are very few classics, and none of the ones I’ve heard particularly recommended (Juliet Stevenson reading Middlemarch, for example, or Timothy West reading Trollope). Simply Perfect is actually the only Balogh in the library’s collection, and The Cinderella Deal is the only Crusie….and so on. Still, I am not about to sign up for Audible unless this listening experiment really takes, so for now I’ll have to make do. I’ve got Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups on hold: I think that will be a good one for me.

Any tips from you more experienced audio book listeners — favorite narrators, good sources, ways to keep focused? Also, what do you especially like about listening to books — is it mostly about the convenience of being able to play them while you do other things, or do you find you have a different relationship with books you hear rather than read?