Listening to stories well read

second take

Listening to stories well read

For years, I had ignored that small corner in our bookstores stocking audio books, until one day, not too long ago, I noticed that tucked away among all those management and self-help books was an audio book version of Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It was an abridged version, but still the discovery was exciting. This had been one of those books I had read and re-read in college, and I was curious to know how it might feel to hear the book read aloud. I bought it (even though it was expensive) and heard it that very night. The experience was a revelation. I realised suddenly that one could re-visit all one’s favourite books through an audio version and relive the experience as though you were reading a familiar book afresh.

Our bookstores are regrettably poorly stocked in this niche area. The audio book is a billion-dollar-a-year industry with over 1,139 publishers putting out more than 55,000 audio titles each year. And yet, our bookshops carry only a handful of audio titles — mostly management and self-help related. I can understand their hesitation: will it sell? An averaged-sized printed book translates roughly into five CDs, making it naturally expensive. Easier in dollars, harder on the rupee. For this very reason most audio books for the longest time came out only in abridged forms.

Will readers in India switch from reading a book to listening to it? Perhaps the answer to that might be audio books of our own writers. If Indian publishers can put out audio titles of classic and contemporary Indian literature, read accurately and beautifully and with feeling by theatre and film actors (as in some instances), or even writers reading their own work, or just about anybody who reads well, audio books might catch on here. Besides, it will be wonderful to hear — whatever the language — our own literature read aloud. (Imagine what fun an audio book of English August would be). In an American bookstore you can find an audio version of nearly every printed book from the last three decades or so. And several modern and contemporary classis as well.

My own experience with listening to books read aloud was that it isn’t easy to get into an audio book. You keep going back and hearing the same page again. I don’t know if this echoes your own audio reading experience. But once you’re deep into it, following the narrator carefully, then it’s an entirely new pleasure, a new imaginative and auditory sensation. Sometimes, though, it is tricky. I managed to get hold of the audio book of Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star. I was eager to re-listen to a thriller I loved.

The opening passages went well but once the narrator began to speak in various voices for the various characters, I began to distance myself from the reading. And when the detective hero — Arkady Renko — spoke, it wasn’t the voice I had imagined for Renko. That’s the kind of problem you frequently run into with the audio book: it isn’t how you imagined the characters would sound. 

But there’s one persuasive quality to the audio book, and that is, like music and cinema, the experience is immediate and can be shared with others. Also, significantly, reading (listening) to an audio book takes you away from the solitude a book imposes — suddenly there is another voice in the room, in your ear, offering a kind of companionship.

With actual books you can do what I call deep or close reading: stopping at a passage, rereading it, looking closely at meaning. This is not possible with the audio book but what takes its place is a kind of intense, meditative reading. You are listening of course, but it can feel like you are reading with a newfound intensity. Listening to stories is an age old thing, after all. A childhood thing.

The most memorable audio book for me has been actor Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The quality of that voice, the feeling he brought to it, made listening to the book a double pleasure. Irons, who played the book’s protagonist, Humbert, in Adrian Lyne’s film version, makes you sit up and take notice of lines in the book you casually passed over. Those famous opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the plane to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”, makes you realise that Nabokov meant for us to hear the book as much as read it. Since listening to Irons read this way, I have, even when reading a book with my eyes, tried to hear the sound sentences make.

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