In the last few years I’ve become dependent on audiobooks to the point that now I’m often listening to novels more than I’m reading them. According to the New York Times, audiobook sales were up 38% in 2015, and more and more people are binge listening. This year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I binge-listened to the twenty-three hour Book Four of The Barchester novels by Anthony Trollope.
The rapture of hearing a great actor like Juliet Stevenson reading Middlemarch, or Clare Danes reading The Handmaid’s Tale, brings me back to a childhood when I was read to, when the books I heard seemed more real than even television or film. When I watch a film, I’m always aware of the mechanics of it, of the fact that the actors are portraying other lives, that the finished product is the result of various collaborations, both technical and artistic. But listening to a novel, it’s just you and the novelist and the reader who is taking such care to bring the words to you. The primordial simplicity of this allows you to imagine that the author was writing the book for you. And that the characters actually existed, that they lived and died and you’re listening and seeing the chronicles of their lives. A few day ago, when I heard Trollope’s phrase “a black biting frost, such a frost as breaks the water pipes and binds the ground to the hardness of granite” describing the countryside on a February morning in 1860, the day a jilted woman knows her lover is to marry, I could almost feel the punishing cold in my fingertips. I could see the woman’s suffering in the wintry affliction — arguably the imagination is more powerful and more vivid than sight.
I have great admiration for the craft of the actors who record these books. I wish there could be an academy award for performances in audiobooks as there is for actors who portray characters in film. I’d so much prefer to spend an evening with Timothy West, the renowned British actor who has recorded most of Trollope, than any American superstar actor who is a household word. Because surely West must love Trollope; otherwise why would he painstakingly render so many of Trollope’s novels into spoken word? There is so much to discuss about Trollope, and I can’t help wondering who might be West’s favorite character. Could it perhaps be Lady Glencora, the quick-witted noble woman who marries Plantagenet Palliser?
If you confer with other audiobook fans, you find that many of them fall in love with a certain reader and often their selections are guided by this passion rather than by personal literary taste. I confess that when I listened to Will Patton read Light in August, a novel I treasure, William Faulkner’s feverish prose became even more heated off the page; and Joe Christmas loomed like the literary monolith that he is. Wanting to get more of Patton’s voice, I followed Patton like a trufflehound to The Sonby Philip Meyer, To Finders Keepers by Stephen King, to Deliverance by James Dickey. Indeed, after listening to Juliet Stevenson read Middlemarch, I trailed her to Persuasion, my favorite of all Jane Austen’s novel.
The world champion of audiobooks is, interestingly, Audible.com, the publishing arm of Amazon who must be applauded for bringing a daunting number of books (many of them backlist titles) to audio life, titles that the other audio publishers would probably never touch. Not only are avid listeners such as myself gratified by the growing number of choices, but so are vast numbers of people who are either blind or can no longer read. If reading a book is an escape, listening to a book is an adventure, a sojourn away from a life filled with obligations and pressures and expectations, or just a respite from a life more solitary.