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Friday, 11 November 2016

My Love Affair with Audio Books

2016 has been a dark year for me. I'm not (just) using 'dark' here for its metaphoric (and ocularcentric) meanings of ''sad' and 'gloomy'. I also mean that my two cataract operations, not to mention the broken leg, obliged me to spend a lot of time lying in the dark. It is no coincidence that 2016 is also the year that I rediscovered the wonder of audio books. When I was a child, commercially produced audio books were hard to find. I had two: The Railway Children and Black Beauty and I listened to them both so many times that I wore them out. But not before I had learnt them off by heart. When my reading glasses were perfected, I abandoned audio books in favour of much more readily available print books. Five years ago I discovered kindle which let me read large-print even as my eyes were failing.

My love affair with audio books began again at Blind Creations when writer and musician Romain Villet introduced me to his electronic reader Victor. The Victor Stream is a pocket-sized machine which reads texts in almost any electronic format (except PDF) out loud using a pretty convincing text-to-speech voice. I find it particularly useful for reading long documents quickly: not only can I accelerate the reading speed, I can also skip material, make notes and highlight important passages. Listening to text will never be as quick as reading it, but I am getting closer. I read Jean Giono's Le chant du monde this way in May and it is perhaps for this reason that I noticed the novel's extraordinary non-visual, multisensory, prose, which I discuss here.

Blind people have listened to stories for as long as blind people have existed. But audio books have only very recently become widely and easily available to the non-blind public.. Libraries now use services like overdrive to deliver audio content electronically, and companies like Audible encourage busy people to multi-task by reading as they run, drive or cook.

I was sceptical about Audible's offering at first. I thought their books were over-priced, especially as the RNIB's talking book service gives me free access to books read by volunteers. Crucially though, it takes the RNIB a while to provide access to recently published books and they do not always have the books I want when I want them;  they also have next to nothing in French. Audible, on the other hand, often has books available at the same time as the print versions are published. This means that I can read the same books as my family and friends; now more than ever I feel like I am part of contemporary literary culture.

But for me the main advantage of Audible is the way their books sound. Their narrators are professional performers who deliver their texts in compelling and creative ways. They sound like they have thought about how to read the story; they adopt different voices for different characters, they change the tone, speed and volume of their voice to match the prose and they pay attention to dialects, accents and regional contexts. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's wonderful Americanah is an excellent example of the difference a good narrator can make. The novel, which is about a Black woman's experiences in Nigeria and America, is read by Black actress Adjoa Andoh and produced by Whole Story Audiobooks. In what might be the audio equivalent of free indirect speech, I immediately felt a powerful connection with the narrative voice through the narrator's voice. In addition, when Adichie's narrator talks about the different accents she encounters in Nigeria, and how a person's voice does or does not reflect their personality or social situation, Andoh's voice cleverly mimics the different accents that her protagonist is describing. Because of its narrator,  I am convinced that listening to Americanah was a more immersive, enriching and fulfilling experience than reading it would have been.

To my great delight, Audible also offers audiobooks in French and I have been devouring Fred Vargas's Commisaire Adamsberg books this year. In the fifth book in the series, Sous les vents de Neptune (Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand), produced by Audiolib, Adamsberg and his colleagues travel to Quebec and spend time encountering, deciphering and discussing the impenetrable Quebecois accents and vocabulary of their Canadian colleagues. The narrator, Francois Berland has a lot of fun putting on Quebecois accents and there is no doubt that his different voices improved my experience of reading this novel.

Audiobooks are a great example of what disability studies would call 'blindness gain': they were first developed for blind people and have now become widely available to everyone. They used to be an assistive technology for a marginalised population; they are now widely and easily available. Non-blind people are now lucky enough to be able to access the wonderful world of audio, a world which was once the closely guarded secret of blind people.