Queuing at a supermarket self-checkout not long ago, the robot voice intoning ‘unexpected item in bagging area’, a cashier rushed towards me, poised to call an ambulance. Rigid, ashen-white, frozen peas aloft, I was barely breathing, cashier and robot invisible and unheard. My world was the scrape of a fine desk hoisted over banisters and, after an awful pause, the splintering crash as it hit stone flags scattering a mother’s treasures and memories. Physically, I may have been holding frozen peas but in every way that matters, with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes streaming directly from headphones through ear to gut, I was in Vienna, in a house being stripped by the Gestapo.
I’ve come late to audiobooks. I thought they were for non-readers. I thought I preferred to read at my own speed. I thought my writing couldn’t possibly benefit from another’s words read aloud by a third party. I was wrong. Turns out that, for me, audiobooks are the equivalent of Charles Ryder’s ‘low door in the wall’ opening onto the ‘enclosed and enchanted garden’, from Brideshead Revisited. In other words, audiobooks take me to where, as a writer, I need to be.
More than that. Over the past couple of years I’ve come to depend on them the way some people depend on music, and I’ve come to realise that though the tale being told is important, the real value of the audiobook is the rhythm of the words, the patterns they make, the way the waves leaven the imagination so that when, reluctantly unplugged, I sit down to write, I’m already airborne.
Actually, the story is the least important thing. Sometimes, like Henry James’s preferred ‘typist without a mind’, I don’t even try to understand what’s going on. When I listen to Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, I just let Jim Norton’s lovely Irish burr and Marcella Riordan’s wistful brogue tumble around. In the case of Ulysses, I often end up laughing. Joyce is so funny! So there I am, one of those laughing walkers you instinctively avoid.
Why walking? Emphatically and importantly, I don’t listen to relax: I listen to be energised; and for me, walking at speed is an integral part of the audiobook experience. Perhaps my late conversion to audio has something to do with the ultimate in portable, walkable technology: the iPod. In a slim rectangle smaller than many matchboxes, I have, at time of writing, 51 unabridged books poised and ready, most of them enormous. Don Quixote, for example, comes in at 36 hours 9 minutes; The Goldfinch at 32 hours 30 mins; London Fields at 21 hours 48 minutes.
The length is deliberately chosen. Being thrifty, I maximise the monthly free credit offered by the audiobook library. A bargain always feels good. But priceless is the joy of returning morning after morning to a familiar voice, safe in the knowledge that the wordwaves created by, say, John O’May reading Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys or Jeremy Irons narrating Lolita will carry me through the working day. That’s the whole working day. Audio waves don’t stop when I press ‘pause’. They float in my unconscious mind until, first thing next morning, I fling on coat and boots and, with a burst of pleasure even if the writer’s going to make me cry – sometimes I listen to the execution of Desmoulins and Danton in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety just for the joy of a good weep – I press ‘resume’ and stride out into the Glasgow morning.
Writers need confidence, and audiobooks, with their commanding ‘Listen to me! I, the author, have something to say!’ give mine a boost. In this respect, I’m particularly indebted to E. L. Doctorow, not just for narrating Ragtime himself but for revealing that he began it in a ‘deep moment of personal desperation’. As Michael Schmidt puts it in his magisterial The Novel: a biography, Doctorow ‘wanted to write and had no subject’. Schmidt quotes Doctorow: ‘“I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall … Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall”’. As it happens, continues Schmidt, ‘the history of the United States adhered’ to that wall. So it is that through the magic of audio, into my ears pours a marvellous story told in marvellous language by a man who had no subject.
But best of all is that Mr Doctorow isn’t saying, generally, ‘don’t despair, inspiration will come’; he’s saying ‘don’t despair, KATIE, inspiration will come’. Headphones make it personal. When the dreaded ‘Audible hopes you have enjoyed this programme’ signified Ragtime’s end, I wanted to thank Doctorow equally personally. Sadly, it was too late.
There are, of course, audio downsides. It’s hard to find a lost place, and mispronunciations hit you like a sudden slap. My jaw dropped when the author of Money was Frenchified as ‘Martin Amee’, and I gasped when, in an otherwise flawless narration of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the reader suddenly pronounced Gonville and Caius as written instead of Gonville and ‘Keys’. Like a ballet dancer tripping, the jar disrupts the soundwave. I always mean to make a list of complaints. Luckily, particularly whilst walking, I often forget my notebook so my pedantry goes unrecorded.
A final miracle. Even when read to as a child, I’ve always struggled with Dickens but since a Catholic upbringing dictates that pleasure must be paid for, with a virtuous sigh I downloaded Bleak House, clamped on the earphones, pressed ‘go’ and heard, in a voice like gravel, ‘Chapter 1. In Chancery. London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather’. In 21 words Sean Barrett had me walking, with astonished delight, to Dickens’s rhythm. I walked for miles and ended up in the supermarket. There I unplugged. I’m wiser now. Unless you want to cause a stir, audiobooks don’t go with frozen peas.