When I take my dog Jake for a walk he amuses himself by sniffing every blade of grass that we pass. Every so often, when he finds a particularly succulent grassy outcrop, he will eat it with every evidence of enjoyment. Generally speaking, about half an hour later, he will throw it all up again. This seems to be an extraordinarily pleasurable experience if you happen to be a dog...
He spends an inordinate amount of time on our walks just sitting and watching motor cars and vans. He's particularly fond of observing them closely as they go into, and come out of, garages and we can spend anything up to ten minutes simply watching vehicles reverse out into the road, straighten themselves up and then drive off into the distance. We aren't allowed to move a muscle until the car has driven itself out of sight. Then we walk on and thirty seconds later the whole exercise repeats itself. Sometimes drivers who want to be helpful pause and wave us on. They seem very puzzled when Jake and I shake our heads and just sit there staring at them. The more nervous drivers get very flustered under our unbending scrutiny and sometimes they reverse into gateposts. This appears to amuse Jake greatly, and he sniggers under his breath.
Although Jake finds our walks vastly entertaining, full of both intellectual stimulation and tummy rubs, I tend to want additional amusements. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my tummy rubs at least as much as Jake enjoys them, if not more, but I don't get nearly the same intellectual stimulation from watching cars go in and out of garages that Jake does. Consequently I have loaded up my phone with audio books and I spend our walks with earbuds firmly plugged in, listening to somebody tell me a story...
There are many thousands of classic stories in the public domain, and there are organisations dedicated to providing public domain audio versions of these books. I have downloaded a couple of hundred of these audio books and I am now greatly enjoying re-visiting novels that have been life-long favourites. I find that hearing them read out loud adds a whole new dimension to these old, familiar tales and even though, in many cases, I am very well aware of the direction that the story will take, I still find myself thrilling to the twists and turns of the plot, and I am absolutely revelling in the rapturous prose.
This last is a very important point. Many books from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are greatly over-stuffed with introspective and often somewhat prolix sentences that the eye tends to skip over when reading the printed words on the page. But of course you can't skip anything when you are listening to an audio book. Whether you like it or not, you really do have to listen closely to every single word. Strangely, in these circumstances I find that the somewhat awkward printed sentences will often turn out to be much less awkward when presented as spoken sentences! Indeed, they can positively shine with a drama and a meaning that is utterly lost on the printed page. Consequently, I am finding that listening to these audio books adds greatly to the story telling experience. So much so, in fact, that I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that many of the books were actually designed to be read out loud, and that reading them silently to oneself (and skipping the "boring" bits) does them a great disservice. It's not hard to see why, of course. These books pre-date radio and television and movies and mp3 players. When these books had their heyday it was not uncommon for members of a family to spend a cosy evening huddled together around the fireplace, drinking tea and listening to stories being read out loud by the head of the house. And, it seems to me, the stories still work best that way. Therefore, in my case at least, many old favourites are now taking on a whole new lease of life.
There are some potential drawbacks of course. One of the providers of these public domain audio books is Librivox (https://librivox.org/). All the books are read by volunteers Librivox itself appears just to act as a coordinator, farming out the reading tasks among its volunteers. Oddly, they seem to have decided that it is not always necessary to have the entire book read by one single person (though some of them really are solo efforts). Presumably Librivox feel that they can reduce the workload by sharing the individual chapters out between half a dozen or more volunteers, and so, in many cases, that is exactly what they have done. Until you get used to it, it can be something of a shock to hear a different voice reading each chapter, and even more of a shock when the voices alternate between male and female! However I found that I soon got used to it and indeed, if we go back to the idea of books being read aloud of an evening for the purpose of family entertainment after dinner, I can easily imagine that the various family members would each take it in turn to read a chapter or so. So looked at in that light, Librivox's policy of having multiple narrators for some of their books does perhaps start to make a little bit more sense it's just that convivial family gathering writ large.
Of course, the production of these audio books is very much an ongoing project and I have discovered that it is important to visit the site at frequent intervals so as to keep up to date with their lists. At the moment, I am impatiently waiting for The World's Desire a collaborative novel by Sir Henry Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang (he of the multi-coloured fairy books). It is currently marked as "in progress". I hope they hurry up with it...
Although the books are all read by amateur volunteers, the standard of reading is very high. However, unavoidably, each reader has their own distinctive style and their own pronunciation foibles. This can lead to little hiccups, particularly for less familiar words. For example, I've recently been listening to a Librivox recording of She by Sir Henry Rider Haggard. An important character in the novel is the Greek adventurer Kallikrates (he's actually been dead for two thousand years when the story begins nevertheless he's a very important character indeed). Some of the readers pronounce his name phonetically (Kally Crates I am reminded irresistibly of the move Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure in which the eponymous heroes meet the Greek philosopher So-Crates...) and some pronounce the name in a more Grecian style (Kallic-rut-eeze). To begin with I found these variations in pronunciation to be quite jarring but once the story really took hold of me it became much less irritating, and very soon it ceased to grate on my nerves at all. Indeed, I began to quite enjoy these variations in reading styles as each individual narrator endeared themselves to me, and I soon found myself anticipating their idiosyncrasies when I recognised an old friend as the narrator of the next chapter.
Oddly, not all the narrators are native English speakers. I am currently listening to She and Allan, (also by Sir Henry Rider Haggard). I am about half way through it as I write these words. The narrator (so far there has been only one narrator) is Dutch. He speaks (mostly) impeccable English, as so many Dutch people do. But he does have a fairly heavy Dutch accent, which seems oddly appropriate as the story takes place in South Africa... Amusingly though, he does stumble over some words "peruse" and "ensue" always come out as "pursue" and "ensure". Unfortunately for this narrator, Haggard seems to be inordinately fond of those two words, so the voice does a fair amount of stumbling. Nevertheless, once I got used to his accent these, and one or two other, mispronunciations ceased to bother me, and I'm really enjoying listening to the story. Next on the list is Haggard's Viking adventure Eric Brighteyes. I'm greatly looking forward to that. I may have to extend Jake's walks...
Mind you, Jake's walks already seem to go on for longer and longer every day as he meets and greets more and more people and dogs. Because of all his social activity, Jake is now world famous in our village. I can't count the number of times that complete strangers have come up to me in the supermarket and asked, "How's your dog doing?"
"Very well," I usually say. "He's pushing a trolley down the dog food aisle at the moment. If you hurry, you might catch him up."
Of course, because Jake is a dog, saying hello to everyone we meet involves much sniffing of importantly aromatic bits and pieces. Once a lady observed, "They always feel so good after they've sniffed a bottom or two."
"Don't we all?" I replied and she gave me a funny look, made her excuses, and left.