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.