One of the highlights of my reading year was, once again, some amazing listening: I listened to all twelve of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series. Most of it twice. I talked about the beginning of that here.
And I’ve listened to almost all of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels (I just started the sixth and last, The Duke’s Children, so I may finish this year).
All but one of these books was narrated by the wonderful Simon Vance. The Trollope series has also been narrated by Timothy West; I listened to one of his, which was excellent, but went back to Vance–for familiarity’s sake? Consistency? I’m not sure.
I loved both of these series so much they deserved a year-end post of their own. I think the joy of this kind of storytelling is tracing the patterns and the randomness in the characters’ lives, seeing how they grow and change (or fail to), recognizing minor characters from three books back who suddenly reappear, tracing the influence of past events on present ones. It captures something about, well, life that shorter stories cannot, though they have their own gifts and charms.
I’m not sure whether I love this kind of expansive, sometimes meandering storytelling so much because I spent years studying Victorian novels, or whether I was drawn to be a Victorianist because that kind of story spoke to something in me. Either way, I owe the two Anthonys and Simon Vance thanks for something like 300 entranced hours, counting those re-listens.
A lot of my really memorable reading experiences in the past few years have been listening experiences–Isobel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns and Wade Davis’ Into the Silence come to mind. I think maybe the most memorable non-fiction book I “read” this year was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. And then there were the 19th-century novels I revisited through the voice of Juliet Stephenson. In all of these cases, strong narration enhanced my experience of the book and, I am pretty sure, helped to impress it on my memory, even though I know I miss some things when listening that I’d notice when reading.
Audiobooks have enriched my reading life, and they’ve allowed me to make time for books I know I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. But I was a bit shocked to find that they accounted for about 40% of my reading in 2015. I’d prefer the balance to tilt more towards reading text, mainly because I think that much listening suggests I’m often listening when I could be reading, not just when I’m doing other things like driving. And that bothers me because I know I have a harder time concentrating on reading than I used to (I’ll just Google this thing, and check my email, whoops, where did that hour go), and I’m trying to do better at that, not worse.
So for 2016, I aim to use my eyes more and my ears less. I own the first half of Dance to the Music of Time in print. Perhaps I’ll revisit it without the help of Simon Vance. I bet I’ll still hear him in my head, though.