I am late sometimes. Now and again, very late. Until now, I've never been this late to a party, and this one has been around for almost a century. Luckily for me, the crowd is still in full swing and there's no lack of entertainment. Truth be told, this is not an event with flappers off the hinges and a high tide of wild jazz rising over stacked glasses of golden champagne.
It could be, if this were The Great Gatsby, narrated by William Hope or some other trained thespian.
Yet this is a story of an avid book reader, who listened to his very first fiction audio book from, well, cover to cover.
I started picking audio books on the radar in the libraries during the late 90s. Stacks of CDs with recorded narratives bulged on bookshelves and threw titles at me that sounded familiar, read by actors whose names I could connect to particular films. The thin discs in plastic sheets proved a better technological support for recordings than magnetic tapes of the 80s, most likely because they didn't need a pencil as the primary repair tool.
The idea attracted me for a while. I'd just gotten hold of a portable CD player and my morning hikes to work suddenly stood a chance of improvement, above all one particularly tedious bit along the rail tracks and through an underground passage by the railway station. It was not a place to advertise in a tourist guidebook at the time, so a good grunge playlist wired to my ears was an attempt to curtain off the grey and unkempt ambience. Could an audio book have done better?
One of the reasons was my inability to find a recording of an unabridged book. The first few recordings I fished off a bookshelf in the municipal library were known to me in their printed version, and the void of passages I expected to hear echoed louder than announcements off the railway platforms. Imagine parts of known songs just not being there for you anymore.
The other reason was the CD player. It skipped bits.
At one point, no more than fifteen minutes into the narrative, I switched it off and moved on.
Twenty years later, the underground passage is several shop-windows and displays brighter, and the bars have switched to more international and sober clientele. On one occasion, I passed by as I was listening to an audio book on my mobile phone. A friend posted the recording to me from one of online bookstores as a gift. He spotted the title, browsed the description and thought I might enjoy it. Adventurous crime fiction set in the 16th century Europe, with action galore, developing characters, and a clever story.
What's not to appreciate?
First of all, it was a good move on my friend's part to choose fiction. He must have known for a long time that non-fiction occupies both my hands, keeps my eyes wide open and there's no place left for audio disturbance. I'm a focused four-fingers non-fiction reader – I use one finger to mark the index section, another sticks at the beginning of the appendices, the third piggy goes to chapter notes and the fourth finger turns pages. The little finger supports the back cover and keeps the book safe in my hand. The experience is more of a focused study than reading, and may at times prove rather exhausting. I have tried non-fiction in various media apart from printed books, but I found all other ways lacking. All those digital bookmarks and links confused me and snatched my attention from the content, so I settled for a proper printed issue as the preferred kind of delivery.
Fiction, on the other hand, walks on the opposite side of Narrative Alley. In most cases, it doesn't want me to check cross-references on the fly. It guides my boat down the rapids of plot, onto rocks of drama, and I'm not supposed to pull on the rudder at all. I'm just a passenger on a set joyride.
That circumstance sealed the deal, and I downloaded the requested application to my mobile, plugged the earphones and hit Play. In weeks to follow, my commute bus rides to the capital sounded much better, and my walks down to the post office in the village took ever-wider detours.
The reason that I fell for the book lies with the narrator. He is an actor with trained and perfect diction, and a pleasant tone of voice that mastered the pace of the story. My experience was left with less footing in my own imagination, which is usually in control, when I read. I half-expected a typical radio drama environment, overflown with sound effects, but the recording kept clear from that. The narrator used only his voice and pauses to support dramatic pitches, retain the measure and – in a word - deliver.
Still, there was some struggle left on my part. Each character in the story spoke in his or her own voice, which meant that the narrator, a Brit, changed his voice accordingly and used many dialects. Princes and cardinals spoke in High Posh and admired their own "pah-wah" over fates of many, while lower-class merchants pronounced their Rs when they said them in a word, and there was even a mercenary who slurred like Spud in Trainspotting. I understand why characters need unique and obvious vocal distinctions in a narrated story, it was just that British dialects didn't fit my image of territories framed by the post-medieval Alps, the Rhine and Saxony.
Another thing with the chosen voices and the manner of speaking was that they affected the image of characters in my mind, especially the female ones. The narrator had to pitch his voice somewhat higher when he vocalized a female character, and for some reason that made them all seem less tall and not as physically strong as male characters. A rather odd reaction on my part, I admit, but it was there.
At times, my mind wandered off, prompted by a sentence or an idea from the story. That was when I discovered the Replay 30'' button and put it to good use. Live and learn.
The almost-centennial party of audio books has lost none of its vigor or momentum. Recordings of narratives still serve those less able to read, as well as all whose lifestyles don't fit with comfortable armchairs and leather-bound volumes. The technology is there for the grabbing, average mobile phones now accommodate a series of unabridged volumes, while online bookshelves offer more titles than could possibly be digested in a single lifetime. Now, I don't think I shall play an audio book behind the steering wheel any time soon, but spoken narratives may very well remain my companions during walks down to the village.
I hear Terry Pratchett's books sound like an excellent choice.