from lo-fi to wi-fi power of audio books

From Lo-Fi (via Lowood) to Wi-Fi: A Personal Journey Listening To Audio Books

Sitting in rows sewing circle dolls for the missions in 1981, under the beady eye of a nun in a school sounds like a scene from “Jane Eyre”. But, listening along to “The Hobbit” and “Tammy Troot’s Capers” elevated it to one of the warmest memories I have of my childhood. After lunch, every Friday, out came scraps of material to be cut into circles which were hemmed and threaded together to create doll shaped creatures with button eyes fixed to stuffed sock heads.

I have no idea whether these sinister looking creations made it to their intended destinations; but I do remember that as we sat painstakingly threading needles and stitching the circles,  the voices from the small cassette tape recorder, which buzzed and whirred and clicked at times, took me there and back again with Bilbo Baggins and onto a stream in Galloway where Tammy Troot enjoyed adventures with his similarly alliteratively named friends.

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Like most kids of the 70s and 80s, I was a big fan of Jackanory, the story-telling series which condensed a whole book into five fifteen-minute episodes, read by Kenneth Williams and the various other stars of the day. But the talking book was a sustained, unedited journey, no visual cues, of ebb and flow, cliffhangers and sweet resolutions. It was, I now realise, my introduction to the transformative power and effect of a spoken soundscape and my life is immeasurably, the better for it.

Talking books then, however, were the caviar of the literary world in terms of expense. Until my own children, along with most of the world, fell under the spell of Harry Potter and we remortgaged to buy the tapes of “Prisoner of Azkaban”, I had all but forgotten how soothing and enriching experience it could be.

They are also unwieldy and there was no immediate access to the next in the series. So when I came across Radio 4 Extra (when it was still Radio 7), while working from home doing a particularly mundane admin job, I devoured all of its content, hoovering up crime and the classics as it effortlessly streamed through my laptop. Such was my habit and desperation, I even resorted to listening to SciFi & Fantasy which was not my usual fare at all.

Imagine, then, my absolute delight when Audible fell into my vortex of awareness, like manna from aural heaven. Virtually every book I could possibly remember or imagine was for the taking at the swipe of a touchscreen, on my phone and accessible on any device. I set about choosing my first purchase (The Complete Sherlock Holmes, FYI) with childlike excitement and revelled in every already well-known word. For the monthly fee, I can buy any book I wished, often hours and hours long and worth far more. In this world of subscriptions and easy access, when I get the notification of my new credit, it seems like a good deal to me.

So what is it that has me such a captive listener? It is an intimate experience, particularly through headphones, which has offered me companionship when I have been lonely and distraction, when I have felt overwhelmed. It has brought colour to the dullest of days and the most mundane of tasks or journeys. Coming from and having myself a big family, it may seem surprising that I ever feel lonely or lack company. When my children were younger, being the only adult around felt isolating.

And now they are adults themselves, their busy lives online and in the real world take them increasingly away. It is then that my old friends and those I have yet to meet step into the gap. So for now when I write, I listen to music. But, when I walk or drive, compile lists and shop online – or, in other words, do the stuff of most of my life, I bring words for company.

And as I reach middle age, with all its attendant cliches, I turn to the field of Personal and Spiritual Growth and again feel the transformative power of words, spoken often by the author, directly to me, through my own headphones whenever I want. I have listened and re-listened to, as I used to read and re-read my old favourites of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse; finding comfort and joy in the familiarity of an untouched world. I have been rendered insensible with laughing at “I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan” and near broken by “Sunset Song”.  It has quite literally changed my life.

Incidentally, the only one of my old friends I haven’t tried out is Jilly Cooper – a convent education will do that to you. It’s certainly easier to flick the pages to skip the romping and spare the blushes than to fast forward. God help your soul if you misjudge stop and play. And my school was really nothing like Lowood. Well, not much. I can at least thread a needle and stitch, unlike any of my own children. Maybe Sister Mary was onto something. She certainly left me with a legacy of listening and expert loop knots that I will always be grateful for.

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Written by
Susan McArdle
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