Lend me your earbuds

A word, if you will, in praise of the audiobook.

I’m listening now, for the second time with my second child, to the 7-book 20+hour Harry Potter series, read by the incomparable Stephen Fry. Fry’s voice is like treacle pudding, warm and inviting. (He’s particularly good at bears, from Pooh to Paddington.)

But you don’t need a treacly voice to charm listeners; a good story will do it just as well. Roald Dahl’s pinched and prickly voice reading of his Fantastic Mr Fox was my childhood favourite – and though it’s hard to find today (even his official web site disavows it), it’s in regular rotation in my house.

When not listening with children, I’ve enjoyed the Arkangel Shakespeare series of 38 audio dramas: not as great, perhaps, as the BBC Radio Shakespeare dramas, but who else does all three parts of Henry VI, and then Richard III with the same cast? And on long drives (to Patagonia, perhaps) the 39-hour Don Quixote in the recent Edith Grossman translation is superb. The windmills are, literally, just the beginning.

Speaking of long drives: once, east of Kenora (in northwestern Ontario), on a drive from Winnipeg to Toronto, I left my collection of Virgil’s Aeneid audiocassettes on the roof of the car. When I drove off, they fell onto the road and were smashed to pieces by a passing semitrailer. I managed to save a few, but there’s something elegiac about obscure media; and something appropriate how that Penguin Classics recording is now only available, used, on cassette.

Audiobooks are more than a pastime. They’re a way to hear the language of books and plays and poems as it should be heard: over time, with voice and tone and feeling. A few sound effects, if you must.

Poetry, like this 12-hour collection of the Romantic poets, should be read aloud. Or read to you, professionally. I love LibriVox for its mission to crowdsource the world’s back catalogue, but less for its quality; contrast its Rape of Lucrece (Shakespeare’s poem) with Gerard Logan’s, and you see how poetry read aloud can reveal its aural effects.

Finally, there’s something to be said for the dilation of time that an audiobook imposes on you. We should linger over language more, at least when it’s poetic language. That’s why I recorded Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy a few years ago. Also, because I wanted to.

When it’s drama, we need to hear the language’s tone, the music and laughter, the terror and fury, the impact of a performance. We need to listen, more.

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