I’d be in radio if I wasn’t an academic. Not the WKRP disc-jockey kind of radio, but the tweedy public-radio kind. The kind that produces a 5-hour intellectual biography of Northrop Frye, or Eleanor Wachtel’s long, thoughtful interviews with writers like A.S. Byatt or Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean radio that exposes you to ideas and people and books you haven’t read yet, but should. (Or better yet, the kind that gives you just enough knowledge to get away without reading them.)
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.
For a few years now (since 2007), I’ve taught an advanced introductory course on Elizabethan poetry. I mean ‘poetry’ in the broadest possible sense, beyond even Sir Philip Sidney’s meaning — of any fictional narrative that teaches and delights, that creates “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else.” I mean ‘poetry’ as all specimens of non-dramatic writing, as my curriculum designers would have it.
Each year, my students have begun the course by reading all of Sidney’s treatise on the meaning and functions of poetry. It’s like Northrop Frye once said about classical mythology, or the Bible (I forget which): when you know these stories well, when they have sunk to the bottom of your consciousness, every story you read thereafter gets layered on top of their landscape of narratives and images.