Listening to Dickens

Great Expectations, the recent BBC series; is it worth a watch?

My friend from the bookstore, Ms Thrifty, once told me that Dickens was one of those authors whom it is better to listen to than to read. This was an interesting perspective for me, as one of the few writers I would say I didn’t get along with was Charles Dickens. I’ve struggled through his books before and found him long-winded and a bit sentimental. Something about the way he draws his characters, the hints of the grotesque, the heavy brush strokes of the personality traits, distances my sympathy from them. So when my book club chose Great Expectations, I thought it would be the perfect time to try listening instead.

I joined audible for the free month’s trial and Mister Litlove downloaded the book onto CDs for me, a complex process but a necessary one as I don’t possess any gadgets, no iphone, no ipad, no ipod. I own a lot of audio books, and my inclination is to listen to them over and over. Knowing the book already is part of the comforting process that is being read to, and I think of audio books as the ultimate in comfort literature. They are my go-to when I am tired or down.

Listening is a strange sort of process, and one that requires more focus than you might expect. Listening and hearing involve different parts of the brain. When we listen we use the parts that organise and classify, when we hear, we fall back on general passive scanning, and it is of course very easy to fall back into hearing an audio book and to realise that a chapter has gone by without a word being properly retained. I often advise students attending lectures to listen out for something in particular to keep them concentrating, otherwise they may as well not bother. That’s why I like familiarity in my audio books; I don’t have to concentrate.

So listening to Dickens was beset by a few problems: I fell asleep over certain parts, others passed me by, and it seemed generally harder to remember what had happened and who people were. I certainly have not retained anywhere near the level of detail I would expect to get from reading a novel. But all this being said, I have to agree that listening to Dickens is a huge improvement for me on reading him. The theatricality makes sense, the big personalities, the twisty plot. They became pleasures. The book was read by the utterly brilliant actor, Martin Jarvis, beloved by us already for his Just William readings (my son owns them all and loved them as a child), and he managed to give every character a different voice and to bring them all to life. It took me a little while to get into the book, but by halfway through I was listening because I wanted to, not because I had to.

In fact I enjoyed it so much that I’ve extended my subscription to audible and Mister Litlove has just downloaded The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope for me. I think it’s about 25 hours of listening so goodness knows how much of that I’ll sleep through and miss. But given that I do like to listen repeatedly to audio books, I might get to know them quite well in time.

A final word – posting here has been a bit erratic of late and I do apologise for that. My health has been a bit up and down since that illness I had. And then yesterday I went down to London briefly to meet up with the glorious Doctordi, whom many of you will know from her blog. We had a fantastic time and it was wonderful to meet Di, who is just the loveliest person, so warm, so perceptive, so much fun. Her account of our meeting is here and you will be able to tell that we really bonded. So, that was an exciting day for me. And then today, doing absolutely nothing, I pulled the muscle at the top of my right shoulder, making it painful to lift my right arm up. I’m typing with my hands resting on the keyboard, which is okay, but we’ll have to see how it goes. I do hope to get back to regular posting soon.


33 thoughts on “Listening to Dickens

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you continue to feel unwell and hope your shoulder will be better soon. I’m glad you found some pleasure in listening to Dickens on audio. I’ve never been able to embrace the audiobook format. I always say that I am more of a visual learner so the format just doesn’t work as well for me as print.

    • I quite understand as I’m a firm believer in different reception capacities in different people. Taking something in by listening is not at all like taking something in by reading – they aren’t interchangeable! And thank you for your kind words. My shoulder is much better now.

  2. Great Expectations was my first ever audiobook. I was twelve and listened on my Sony Walkman under the covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. I loved it.

    Nowadays, audiobooks send me to sleep so they’re only suitable if I already know the gist of the story. Dickens works for me too when I’m slipping in and out of consciousness.

    • Oh isn’t that a great anecdote! I can’t think what my first audio book was. Hmm. I’m glad I’m not alone in falling asleep over them. I find there are certain times of the day when it is fatal to sit back and listen!

  3. The listening/hearing issue where audiobooks is concerned is one with which I can immediately identify. Downloading them onto CD is probably the best way to deal with the missed sections because I find it easier to go back and listen again on CD than when using my iPod. But I do love Dickens on audio. My evening treat at the moment is ‘Little Dorrit’ from Naxos via Audible narrated by Anton Lesser. I can really recommend him as a narrator. I even managed to listen to the unabridged ‘Iliad’ with his help.
    Sorry you’re not well. Being in the same boat I know how frustrating it is. There are days when Audiobooks are all I can manage and then I want books I already know, so we have that in common too.

    • I’m so glad you think the CD option is better. Mister Litlove and I did discuss getting a cheap ipod we could share, but I don’t think it will happen. And I do like to hear the book out in the room, not just piped into my ears (no idea why!). Having never really got on with Dickens I am now very curious to try him again, so thank you so much for your help with choosing where to go next. I send warmest wishes to you, and hope that all your audio book listening these days is out of choice and not necessity!

  4. Coincidence or? I’m currently undergoing a similar epiphany – listening to the unabridged audio of Our Mutual Friend.

  5. Glad you are enjoying this – I know your aversion to Dickens! Martin Jarvis could make anything sound good. We like his Just William. I have a brilliant reading of David Copperfield by him. His Micawber and Heap are terrific! Sorry about the shoulder. Hope it soon heals.

    • Bookboxed, do you know, I think my days of disliking Dickens might finally be over??? Now which book would you suggest I read next? Or indeed listen to, as I am very partial to Martin Jarvis and so glad to know that your family are also keen. I am laughing just at the thought of his Uriah Heap, without even having heard it yet. But I can anticipate!

  6. Sorry to hear you still haven’t been so well. I hope that all gets better soon. Meanwhile, you’re so right about listening and hearing. One of the reasons I started listening to audiobooks is that I wanted to do just that: learn to be a better listener. I am better since I started listening, but I still have those times when I find I’ve merely been hearing, not really catching a word of what’s going on. The most annoying thing about this is that I will sometimes rewind to the beginning of that particular track, have to listen all over to some huge chunk I remember perfectly, and then space out again (or whatever it is I do) when the part I missed comes back on. It’s so much easier to reread than it is to re-listen. Still, I find it’s interesting the way my memory seems to retain some stuff better via listening and other stuff better via reading.

    • Emily, listening is a real art and often an exhausting one. I only take on a few students a day as I feel I have to really listen to them and there’s only so much of that you can do. I think that’s why my relaxing audio book times have to be with old favourites that are very familiar to me. Even so, I can easily tune out big sections! It is very interesting how different reading and listening are – you’d think some psychologists had done tests on it. Perhaps they have and we will be both of us laughing in our separate countries when the next trip to the bookstore reveals The Secrets of Listening in the non-fiction section, or some such title!

  7. Thanks for sharing your face-to-face meeting of blogger friends. Glad you can actually meet since you’re so far apart, England and Australia. I’ve had two such experience and they were gratifying, kind of surreal. As for Great Expectations film versions, I wasn’t too fond of the newest TV adaptation… the one of your photo above. My favorite (so far) is the 1946 adaptation directed by David Lean. I say ‘so far’ because I’m curious about the upcoming, newest version, with Ralph Fiennes (Magwitch), and Helena Bonham Carter (Miss Havisham). screenplay by David Nicholls, directed by Mike Newell.
    As for audiobook version, I think the key is with the narrator… just wondering who that is.

    • Arti, it was a real treat to meet Di, and it was on the whole less surreal than I was expecting! Thank you so much for your thoughts on the BBC series – I am sure I will give that a miss now. I didn’t realise there was a new film coming out. I’ll look forward to reading your review before I do anything else. The audiobook narrator on this particular Dickens was Martin Jarvis, a truly excellent English actor.

  8. I’m quite addicted to audiobooks. But as to your question at the beginning about the recent BBC Great Expectations — I hated it. I do know the book very well so maybe that was part of the reason, as I know some people loved it. I wouldn’t waste my money on it, that’s for sure.

    • Harriet, I hear you about the BBC adaptation and will give it a wide berth, thank you! I think addiction is not too strong a word to describe my attachment to the audio book. There is always something special in being read to.

  9. So glad you were able to enjoy Great Expectations. Does this mean you might try another Dickens on audio sometime? A Tale of Two Cities maybe? 🙂 It sounds like you had a wonderful time with DoctorDi. So sorry you are still feeling poorly. Virtual soup and hugs to you. Rest up, take care and I hope you feel well again soon!

    • Stefanie, I think that finally I have beaten my dislike of Dickens. Maybe I just had to be old enough to appreciate him? I am even thinking of trying to read him the old-fashioned way again! And meeting Di was fabulous – when are you coming to England next? 🙂 And thank you for the kind words, I am definitely feeling better!

  10. I like to listen to audiobooks too, but I’m afraid I would completely zone out on Dickens – he and I don’t get along that well either!

    It is so easy to get distracted when listening to books. Usually I have them in the car, but even then I find my thoughts wandering unless the story is very compelling and the reader’s voice is interesting and expressive.

    Sorry to hear you’re still not feeling 100%, but glad you had a nice getaway to London!

    • Becca, I never thought I’d get along with Dickens but the audio book was indeed a huge improvement. I think listening in the car would be very tough – one tricky junction and you could lose several key paragraphs! But it was lovely to meet Di, and I do think I’m feeling a bit better, thankfully.

  11. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been unwell. I hope things look up soon.

    As for concentration when listening to audiobooks, I suffer from the same. It is so easy to just let your thoughts wander while listening to a story. I usually listen to audiobooks during my runs, so perhaps that adds to the distraction. Sometimes I wonder if I might not have enjoyed some books more had I read them in print, since some books seem more slow on audio. But then again, there is pleasure to be found in having something read to you. I enjoyed the prose of Wuthering Heights much better on audio than in print, for example. And revisiting old favourites like the Harry Potter series is also an immense pleasure. I think I may look into getting my hands on a Dickens. Like you, I haven’t gotten along well with his works in print.

    • Iris, there is a difference isn’t there, between the books that work on the page and those that work better on the ear. The Trollope I’m listening to is good, but doesn’t quite match the Dickens. One of my biggest successes on audio book was Huckleberry Finn, because no way could I have read all that phonetic dialect speech, but to hear it said in the authentic accent was just delicious. I wonder whether Thomas Hardy would also be better listened to. Now you are making me keen to hear Wuthering Heights!

  12. You are so correct that listening to a book requires a great deal of focus! I “read” audio books in the car many times on the way to work, but *always* on long road trips. I found I could not drive carefully and pay strict attention to the book, however. So, intense and compelling books were not very successful in audio format for me. I think the only exception was Never Let Me Go, by Ishiguro. I was a very dangerous driver reading that one, since I was more focused on the book than on the road. However, when I got home safely, I immediately checked the paper book out of the library and finished it that way. Mysteries are usually what I load up in the car for road trips (Agatha Christie or Elizabeth Peters) – something light like P.G. Wodehouse. On another note, I am so happy you and Di were able to meet. Someday perhaps we all will meet. In the meantime, please rest and get well. When you are not in The Reading Room you are always missed.

    • Lol, Grad, you did make me laugh with your description of driving to Never Let Me Go. I am exactly the same in preferring mysteries to just about anything else on audiobook, and I love P G Wodehouse because you can zone out and come back in and not a great deal has changed in the meantime! Meeting Di was wonderful and wouldn’t it be great if all our group could meet? Bless you for your kind words – I’m doing better now, thankfully and hope to be back to regular posting very soon.

  13. I feel similarly to you about Dickens, though I do get more out of him than I used to and I like the last novels best so maybe if he had lived longer…

    How interesting for me to read your comments on audiobooks and hearing and listening, and the agreement from several of your commenters, so soon after I’d blogged myself about my difficulty in following an audiobook in French. Perhaps I should have attributed this less completely to lack of recent practice in listening to French, but also in part to general tendencies to wandering aural attention and falling asleep (which I also kept doing and, like Lilian, usually welcome…).

    • It’s so difficult to know what you’re experiencing in a different language. It took me years to get over reading the start of French novels and thinking I was lost and had no idea what was going on. When of course most beginnings contain puzzles and missing information that you are not meant to know from the get-go. It’s like all our usual instincts are suspended when we move into a language that’s not a mother tongue. This is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed Dickens and I’m really tempted to try another novel now, either on audio or the page. I never like to think I’d blindsided a literary giant, so there’s hope for me yet!

  14. Thanks for this discussion on audiobooks. I am just getting started with them and apprecitate the guidance. Strangely, I haven’t found listening to be a problem. The words give me something to hold on to instead of letting myself drift into worrying about this or that. Like focusing on a candle or meditating. I love it. Dickens is next.

    Librivox has audiobooks that are out of copyright free. I don’t know enough yet to choose between the people who read, but so far I’ve thought they were fine.

  15. I seem to have a similar problem listening to any books. I keep trying audio, but they often put me to sleep, I have a more difficult time grasping the setting and the narrators talk slower than what I can read.

  16. I have to choose my audio books carefully for just the same reasons you mention. Since I mostly listen when walking I have the added distraction of needing to pay attention to traffic. So I either listen to stories I’ve already read or that are sort of ‘throwaways’–I probably wouldn’t read the book otherwise and it is an easy absorbing sort of story. I’m listening to The Prestige at the moment but have mixed feelings about it…. Anyway, glad the Dickens was a success (I tend to want to read Wilkie Collins over Dickens, but I should really read more Dickens, too)–with a good reader he would be a great author to dramatize! It sounds like both you and Doctordi had a great time–very cool to finally meet someone you’ve had a ‘virtual’ relationship with! 🙂 And I hope you’re feeling much better now–both your shoulder and your other earlier illness!

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