In a first that reflects the booming prosperity of the audiobook industry, the medium will be honoured at the British Book Awards next Tuesday. The short list for audiobook of the year is a strong one: Stephen Fry's unabridged reading of J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (BBC Cover to Cover, 22hrs, £49.99) is on it, as is the third in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass (Chivers, c15hr, £16.95, mail order: 0800 136919). It may or may not be a reflection on the good-quality modern novel that the genre is represented by two abridgements: Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (Harper Collins, 6hr, £12.99), its many voices read with chameleon versatility by Simon Callow, and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong (Random House, 6hrs, £12.99), read with haunting grace by Samuel West. The fifth title is in a genre all its own: Alan Bennett's reading of his Laying on of Hands (BBC, 2hr 20min, £8.99), a solo performance of genius.
I've reviewed all five of these in this column in the past, so I'll devote the rest of it to the last two titles on the list. Although both are autobiographical, they are very different in style. But they have one sinister similarity: each is preoccupied by the author's illness and untimely death. I'm ashamed to admit this was why I shied away from reviewing either when it came out, a cowardly act that meant I almost missed two remarkable productions. John Diamond's C concentrates on the enemy within: the book was adapted from the Times columns that he wrote during his illness. Clinically descriptive, honest and direct, it is scary stuff, but it makes the case for appreciating what we have while we have it with devastating force. Neil Pearson's reading adds immediacy and poignancy.
Also off my chosen patch was Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (Bloomsbury, 3hr, £8.99), again read by Simon Callow. An effervescent mix of bon mots, namedropping and frank accounts of sexual escapades makes for riveting listening and indeed blushes, as I bought my morning paper with Tynan's minute detailing of a spanking orgy ringing in my ears. Pray God that Nicholas, the grandfatherly Greek who runs the corner shop, couldn't hear. But I finished listening depressed, resenting Tynan's peculiar, wilful expense of spirit in a waste of trivia.
Christina Hardyment, Miriam Margolyes and Sue Barker are the judges of the audiobook of the year award, to be announced on Tuesday 5 MarchReuse content