For years I had heard about Patrick O’Brian’s maritime novels set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I knew they had won critical acclaim and that O’Brian had attracted a large and devoted following, but I had zero interest in sailing ships or in 200-year-old naval battles. Occasionally, spotting an O’Brian novel in a bookstore, I might riffle through its pages, but I could never muster enough curiosity to buy it, let alone to read it.
Then one day about 18 years ago, while visiting the public library, I passed the section where books on tape were shelved. There, right at eye level, was an unabridged recording of “Master and Commander,” the first book in O’Brian’s series centered on the friendship between naval captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. On a whim, I decided to give it a listen. When I headed to work next morning, I slipped the first cassette into my car’s tape player. From the speaker came the voice of narrator Patrick Tull, warm, measured, strong, and irresistible.
“Chapter One,” he announced. “The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.”
By the time I got to the office, I was hooked. Within a week or so of listening while in the car, I had finished “Master and Commander.” Before long, I was starting the second book in the series, “Post Captain.” Two years later, I had not only listened to all 20 novels (and the unfinished 21st that O’Brian was working on at his death) but had read at least half of them. All these years later, I’m still not interested in sailing or in 200-year-old naval clashes. But I fell in love with O’Brian’s writing, and by now have read and listened to all his books at least twice — in several cases, three times.
I also fell in love with Tull’s extraordinarily humane and evocative narration. I discovered that he had narrated Ellis Peters’s “Brother Cadfael” books, a series of murder mysteries set in 12th-century England, and I listened to them all. Ditto for his recordings of John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” courtroom stories.
All my life I have been an avid book reader, but for the last 25 years I have been an increasingly enthusiastic audiobook listener, too. I don’t recall either of my parents reading aloud to me when I was a child, probably because I began reading insatiably on my own early on, so it was only as an adult that I discovered what John Colapinto, in a 2012 New Yorker essay, called “the pleasures of being read to.”
Chief among those pleasures is how rich the experience of taking in words can be when they engage the brain through the ear and not the eye.
When you read a book for yourself, in silence, there are no cues outside the text as to how the words ought to be taken. But listen to a well-read recording of a book and you are enveloped in aural cues — inflection, emphasis, animation, accent, tone — that deepen and illuminate the experience of encountering the author’s words. For example, there is a general darkness to Alan Furst’s spy novels, which are set in Eastern Europe during or just prior to World War II. But that darkness becomes almost tangible in George Guidall’s narration: There is always a hint of something hidden and potentially menacing as he voices the books, a quality that brings out the chill in the story, while simultaneously making it impossible not to care about the characters or the terrible predicaments in which they find themselves.
Being read to by a great narrator can bring life to passages that might otherwise be dull or challenging or hard to identify with. Whenever I read something by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel-winning author of “The Remains of the Day” and other books, my focus tends to flag during the frequent sad, reserved, passive longueurs. That changed when I listened to one of his books, “Never Let Me Go.” Read by Rosalyn Landor, the sections that would have caused my eyes to glaze over became absorbing and meaningful. For the first time I took in every word, and that made all the difference in my ability to appreciate the novel.
At the same time, a first-rate narration can enhance even a text I have happily read many times. I love the Sherlock Holmes canon and have read the tales countless times. At a recommendation from one of my readers, I downloaded Stephen Fry’s 62-hour audio version, which I listened to over two months of daily walks. I was blown away by the experience. Like Dorothy stepping out of her black-and-white existence into the Technicolor world of “The Wizard of Oz,” I felt as if I were discovering Holmes and Dr. Watson at a whole new level of perception, not least because Fry’s narration infused the text with an immediacy, and a Britishness, that I had never mustered while reading the stories in print.
One key difference between reading books and hearing them is that the former typically requires all other activity to be suspended. You can’t read “Titan,” Ron Chernow’s spectacular biography of John D. Rockefeller, while driving along I-90, shoveling snow, or climbing the StairMaster. But you can definitely listen to Grover Gardner’s terrifically absorbing narration of Chernow’s book while doing any of those things.
In recent years, recorded books have become the fastest-growing format in publishing — proof, if any were needed, that human beings have never lost their taste for telling and hearing stories. I am grateful that audiobooks give me a way to do something I love — enjoy a book — while doing something I don’t love but can’t avoid, such as driving or exercising. You have to set aside time to read a book. To listen to a book you need only put on your earphones.
There’s a lot about the digital revolution to be lamented. But the explosive growth of audiobooks and the effortlessness with which you can download a book — or a hundred books — to your phone is one of the glories of our age.