From zombies to bullfights

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I find it perfect listening for my daily commute to and from work. It’s great too when you’re travelling, on a plain, or a bus or train watching the scenery pass by between destinations.

 I guess I’ve been listening to audiobooks for about a dozen years, and have listened to hundreds over that period. It’s easy and fun and what I listen to is often very different to what I’ll read in hard copy. For example, I’ve been listening to a lot of zombie themed books lately – I wouldn’t dream of picking one up to read, but to listen to they’re great fun. Likewise sci-fi. That’s a staple genre of audiobooks for me, but I can’t remember the last time I read something in the flesh – probably something by Iain Banks.

 Listening to a book is very different from reading one in your hands. It’s a disposable activity you can switch on and off whenever you like. It’s a different experience, listening passively rather than actively engaging in a book by reading it. You can multitask when listening to a book, whereas to read a book consumes your concentration. 

It’s for this reason I rarely download a literary book to listen too. I’ve got novels on my bedside table I happily dive into, but listening to the same books is mostly an unsatisfying experience, as well as a different experience. When reading you conjure up your own version of the story in the imagination; when listening you buy-in to the narrator’s portrayal of it. It engages with a different part of the brain too, I think. It’s been my experience that I get a different take on books when listening when I’ve read them before. That is interesting in itself. That’s fine for the sort of book you deem as entertainment; but a deeper, truer engagement is required for more substantial literary stuff.

Despite that the latest book I’ve downloaded is a classic. I first read The Sun Always Rises when I was a teenager. I was captured by it, as I was with the rest of Hemingway’s oeuvre. Like with so many others, Hemingway had a major impact upon me as a young man. I loved his clean, crisp writing. The stories resonated with me, as did many of the characters. I responded to the masculine edge to his writing (which is overstated by critics, and probably seen as anachronistic these days). I loved his stuff, but I found myself disliking Papa. So be it. Fortunately I was able to separate the man from his work – so many can’t. In recent years I’m more sympathetic to him. He was a man of his times, if a bit more abrasive than most.

 I hadn’t read The Sun Also Rises for more than 20 years, though there was a time when I would dip into it all the time. I was convinced to download it this time because it had been so long, and because the narrator was William Hurt.

To my surprise I find myself entranced by it anew. This is the book I referred to earlier, and much of the appeal now is the evocation of time and place. It’s a kind of misplaced nostalgia. I love the writing though too. I remember what a damn good writer Hemingway was. It’s so true. That was the altar I worshipped at when I dreamt of becoming a writer: truth. And this is, it feels so anyway, which is much the same thing.

 Then there is the narration. William Hurt is a superior actor. He does the voices so well, and evokes the characters. Once more I find he reads it aloud differently to what I have read it in my head. It’s refreshing. It’s like a new book with a different interpretation. His emphasis is truer than what I had imagined, and so the characters shift. I used to feel sorry for Cohn when I read the book; listening I realise what a prat he was. And I have a new sympathy for Jake.

Next book I’m back to the zombies.

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