Listen with mother

As the first ever audiobooks award is launched, David Aaronovitch comes clean about his addiction to being told stories
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We've had this habit for a couple of years now, me and my Mum. So when the family go round to visit - and when my missus isn't looking - I slip Mum a little something for later in a small brown paper package. It's not that anybody would actually say anything, it's just that you can do without that censorious raising of the eyebrows. You see, my Mum and I are part of that growing number of sad loners who are hooked on audiobooks. We venture into bookshops and seek out that far corner where the tapes are hidden and (when few are looking) grab one, slip it between two paperbacks bought just for cover and hope, red-facedly, that the cashier works the till quickly.

The liberal reader may be asking what makes me so embarrassed; why, if someone were to found Audiobooks Anonymous, I'd be there admitting in low voice, "I'm David. I like to be told stories". Because in the circles in which I move talking books are still seen as terribly naff, that's why. To the literary snobs it's the cheat's way of reading - books without pain; worse, abridged books, butchered by barbarians for the entertainment of morons! "I don't listen - I read," commented one of my most enlightened colleagues acidly, on hearing that I was writing this article.

And to my many chronically youthocentric pals (who themselves tend not to read), audiobooks are either for tiny tots ("and do you know what Flopsy did next, children?"), or for grannies, whose failing eyesight and social isolation leave them little alternative other than to take their teeth out and curl up with a tape-deck. In the movies slick young heroes drive their cars to a pounding beat, or Pavarotti arias - not to Alan Bennett reading "The Wind In The Willows".

But these contemptuous attitudes are now being challenged as, gradually, those who make and those who buy talking books emerge from the closet. Yesterday the first awards for talking books were announced at a ceremony and lunch at the Landmark Hotel in London. Dubbed "The Talkies", the event saw prizes awarded for abridged classics (Ulysses and Death in Venice shared the award), non-fiction (Bill Bryson's Made in America), Best reader (Martin Jarvis, of course) and ten other categories. Organiser Peter Dean, editor of the new trade mag, Talking Business, revealed the economics behind this new confidence: "Last year the talking books business grew by 50 per cent - the highest percentage growth in any home entertainment medium in Britain". Although not massive, this has meant a UK trade worth around pounds 34 million, and set to grow.

Dean sees no reason why Britain should not follow American trends. In the United States the audiobook business took off earlier and is more highly developed. Truckers embarking on a long trip will rent unabridged tapes of Louis L'amour Westerns, dropping off and picking up instalments at way-stations en route. So that grizzled veteran of a million road miles, sat high in his cab, chunky chocolate bar in hand - far from contemplating how to run your hire-car off the road - is probably transfixed by the tale of how Rex Hightower wooed and won Rachel Rodgers (the belle of Reno) down among the purple sage. As is the passenger on a Delta Airlines plane, now offered talking books on most internal flights. For the buyer, there are over 200 stores in the US that sell only audiobooks.

But apart from me and my Mum, who else in this country is buying these tapes, what do they buy and where do they listen to them? According to the market research the "who?" turns out to be any of us. The profile of tape buyers is the same profile as that of the population at large. Phew! I may have Virginia Woolf on the Walkman, but there's nothing odd about me.

The absolute bestsellers are the BBC's recordings of classic comedy programmes - ranging from the Goon shows to the more recent (and utterly brilliant) "Knowing Me, Knowing You". These can apparently clear anything up to an astonishing 100,000 copies. Next come the mass-market books; the thrillers and romances. Penguin's top draw is Dick Francis, whose race-track whodunnits can sell as many as 17,000 audiobook copies. But Penguin's audiobook publishing manager, Jan Paterson is most proud of the succcess of its classic recordings, like the Odyssey read by actor Alex Jennings, its five Thomas Hardy titles, its Steinbecks and its collections of horror, ghost and supernatural stories. These are beautifully packaged, often boxed up with explanatory booklets and maps. They are fabulous. It is, however, possible to be too solicitous of the listener. One disadvantage with taped books is that you can't easily skip the boring bits. Penguin's edition of Macchiavelli's The Prince has a first 45 minutes entirely taken up with a long and scholarly discourse on the crafty courtier's life and times, before you hear one word of Niccolo's own bien-pensants. Nevertheless the Penguin classics are selling and - judging by the sumptuous new catalogue - the company's faith in the product is riding high.

While some listeners will - as in days of yore - sit down in their living rooms, tea and digestives close to hand, and switch on the tape recorder, most talking book consumers are either sleepers or drivers. Sleepers relive the warm childhood experience of being read to as they drift off. A nice Stephen King, or perhaps Cherie Lunghi reading the Kama Sutra and in comes Morpheus with open arms. My Mum is a sleeper.

I am a driver. My standard fare is the thriller. I have never read a word of John Grisham, Michael Crichton or indeed Minette Walters, yet I know all their works. For 35 minutes on the way home from work I escape into the story, surfacing only to yell or curse at fellow commuters. Sometimes, when the denouement begins just as I arrive home, I will sit guiltily - unable to move - in the stationary car as the local Neighbourhood Watch scribble down my registration number. One company, Telstar (famous for those compilation albums with titles like "40 ballads for dog lovers"), has now entered the market after its research showed that the average car journey is 18 minutes in duration. Their talking tapes are made up of short stories lasting exactly 18 minutes.

Not all tapes are equally suitable for listening to in the car. Some require too much concentration; others will cause accidents. Men who put on Nancy Friday's breathy account of women's sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden, are likely to end up missing the gear lever and shifting themselves into fourth. Women roaring along with Michael Praed whispering Leopold Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs will come to grief, car teetering half over a canal, a policeman sprawled on the bonnet.

Tapes are a boon on long holiday drives with the kids and the spouse. Any normal adult will prefer one good reading of Black Beauty to an endless repetition of I-Spy and "The Wheels on the Bus". And when enjoyable grown- up gossip about the real marital problems and career disasters of close friends runs out, there's Joanna Trollope on hand to invent fictional ones for you.

But just because more and more of us are doing it, that doesn't mean that we may not be colluding in a terrible violence being done to our literature. Are stories after all not written to be read? And is the reader's imagination of the way characters speak not replaced with someone else's vision?

Bollocks, says Jan Paterson, "Stories were originally made up for telling to audiences. So we're going back to the days before the novel". So when you listen to Derek Jacobi tell the story of the Iliad, you hear it the way the Greeks did. And a good reader can bring a difficult text to life. The Naxos recording of Joyce's Ulysses, that shared the top Talkies award, is wonderfully told by Irish actor Jim Norton, who turns what can feel like two-dimensional type into immediate and compelling speech.

The autobiography translates particularly well to tape. However good Alan Clark's diaries may be in print, when read aloud in Mr Clark's own clarety and slightly dissolute voice they are utterly compelling. Women go weak at the knees. So do their husbands. It's like sitting next to someone at dinner, who turns around and tells you the fascinating tale of their life - without demanding anything clever in return.

The two things that distinguish the good from the bad audiobook, according to Mark McCallum at Random House (top authors: Ruth Rendell and Robert Harris), are the quality of the abridgement and the ability of the reader. Tapes are typically 45 minutes per side, so abridgements will be designed to last 90, 180 or 360 minutes. If the wrong decisions are taken, the narrative becomes confusing.

A poor read ruins everything. Toni Morrison's Jazz was released here a couple of years ago and read in a low, husky whisper that certainly conjured up shame, steaminess and hot, sleepless nights, but in which scarcely a sentence was intelligible. It was like being chatted up by a beautiful mute. You hope it's going to be OK, but you soon realise it's hopeless.

Britons also demand to be read to by stars - unlike the Americans. We want Kenneth Branagh or Sean Connery, where the Yanks plump more pragmatically for the reader who can best bring the text to life. There are interesting exceptions, though. Martin Jarvis was a good character actor who seemed to fade after early promise. But now he is the king of the audiobook and radio; his Violet Elizabeth Bott a masterpiece of the storyteller's art.

Martin Jarvis's Violet Elizabeth Bott! For some readers this will sound like sacrilege - yet another philistine nail in the coffin of culture. We should all be creating our own Botts - that is what literature is about. But I believe that this will change. After all, the same purists have come round to word-processors - and will condescend to travel occasionally by aeroplane. All that remains is to find a good noun for tape enthusiasts. If book lovers are bookworms...