Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A failed cure

Last year I wrote about the reader’s block that had afflicted me for a long time and how I had managed to conquer it (see The book freeze). It worked very well for a while and then I had a relapse: all I could read was stuff on the Net instead of all those wonderful books that were piling up on my bedside table. I got quite distressed about it again.

And then, one afternoon, in Poundland – one of my favourite shops in the whole wide world, where you can satisfy an urge to spend money so easily and so cheaply, I found several interesting audio books (24 hours of entertainment for £4 – an incredible bargain):

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, read by Kerry Shale
Brick Lane by Monica Ali, read by Ayesha Dharker
Toast by Nigel Slater, read by the author
Orson Welles by Simon Callow, read by the author

My treatment started well: the Jonathan Safran Foer was pure bliss. The novel is marvellous and I cannot tell you how wonderfully Kerry Shale reads it. Brick Lane was also a delight. At last I could understand what all the fuss was about: it’s a sensitive, beautifully written novel, read with feeling.

I was elated: in a very short space of time I had managed to ‘read’ two great novels. I stuck the first tape of Toast in my player and prepared to be enthralled. But as soon as I heard the first sentence read out in a weedy, reedy, thin, wet voice by Nigel Slater I knew I wouldn’t enjoy that particular ride. It was torture, but I suffer from ‘Completion Syndrome’ when it comes to audio books too so I had to listen to all six hours of it. I love Nigel Slater’s recipes, but the food he talks about in Toast (the story of his childhood and youth through the foodstuffs he ate) is stodgy and unpalatable and so is the book. Still, OK, I thought, the reason must be partly because it wasn’t read by an actor. Surely the Orson Welles biography would be fascinating: Simon Callow is a talented writer and he was bound to read his own book with all the passion he put into his acting. Alas! I am halfway through it and not enjoying it much. This time I am bothered by Callow’s American accent. It is the most atrocious I have ever heard. Think Anthony LaPaglia’s English accent in Frasier. It makes me want to scream, which is not good since I mostly listen to the tapes at night. I don’t know how I’m going to bear it for another four hours.

After that, it will be back to printed books, I think, because at least I won’t have to put up with silly voices.

Slapping the self-indulgent authors who think they can read their own works and the editors/publishers who can’t say no to them!


  1. I've got a few of Nigel Slater's books and I used to really like them. Then I started seeing him around Highbury Fields and Highbury Barn when I had an office round there and there was just something so very annoying about his very presence. His recipes are still great but the editorialising around them seems to have become a self caricature - it's odd.

    But then as you know I'm easily irritated.

  2. I've only got his first one (I stopped buying cookery books when I got IBS - what is the point, eh?). I wanted to read Toast because it talks about a lot of foodstuffs I've never had the misfortune to taste - apart from a very small number, when I was a 'French Assistante' in a school, in the late '60s, but heard about from a younger Brit. They sounded extraordinarily dire (some of those products can still be seen on supermarket shelves and in shoppers' baskets, ugh!) and made the whole listening experience even worse. I certainly wasn't salivating. I had already noticed NS's naughty little boy's voice when he was doing that programme where celebrities talked about the foods that 'shaped' them, but I had no idea how grating it was when heard for hours on end, or how boring his tone would be.

    I don't think people get irritated enough: if they did, perhaps things would function better in the UK (transport, etc.).

  3. His association with Nigella doesn't help. Another caricature!

    Your post makes me want to go and try some audiobooks. I've usually no patience with going at someone else's pace, though: it's mostly too slow, except sometimes when your mind wanders and then you can't go back a few sentences and reread them, the blooming thing has rushed on ahead without waiting for you. It's particularly irritating in a conventional CD player, though I can see the solution is to download into iTunes and then you get a slider and don't have to go back a whole track/chapter.

    I also have a quirk which affects my radio enjoyment as well, which is that I seem to be completely unable to hear when I am moving. It's not that I have especially rustly body parts; maybe moving uses the same bit of brain as listening, or something (any neurologists among your followers?). But when I, say, cross my legs or reach for my tea, or get up to get something in the room, I get complete blanks in my listening. As you can imagine, this does limit the opportunities for fitting in 6-hour novels, and I certainly don't dare do it when driving. I tried listening in bed, but then I fall asleep after 10 minutes and still have to play the same bit over and over again.

    Reading, on the other hand, seems to permit me to simultaneously eat, drink, watch TV and carry on a conversation, as long as the first and second are possible one-handed and the latter two are reasonably trite.

  4. In the past I've been through a lot of audio books, due to long regular commutes, and a spell where wifey was only within weekend visit distance. My general rule is never listen to authors reading their own work; they treat it with far too much reverence.


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