My Year in Listening: Simon Vance Reads Sagas

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. 

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6 Responses to My Year in Listening: Simon Vance Reads Sagas

  1. I’m on the other end of the spectrum–I keep thinking that I should start listening to audiobooks but haven’t gotten around to it yet. . . I like the idea of starting with one of the more “expansive” works that you mention since I keep postponing the non-fiction that I mean to “read” as audiobooks (for some reason I keep thinking that non-fiction would be very well suited to narration).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I found that I got to non-fiction in audio that seemed like too big an undertaking to read. No way would I have read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, but I did listen–and yes, some went over my head or I zoned out, but I did get some key arguments and they changed how I think about my own relationship to money.

      I find that I read a lot more non-fiction now as a result of listening to more. Audio made it part of my reading repertoire.

  2. Sunita says:

    I have an Audible subscription but my TBR keeps growing and growing. Both the Trollope and Powell sound good to me, but I balk at the length. I am so slow getting through audiobooks, and I also find that when I have a lot of meetings, teaching, etc. on my plate, I avoid audiobooks because it feels like more of being talked at. Which is ridiculous but sometimes the voices turn into noise and I miss a lot.

    One question: how do you find the time to listen to long books, or lots of books? I have a short commute, and even when I’m working out regularly I rarely seem to have more than an hour or two of audio-friendly time on any given day. I probably do have more, but I need pointers!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, one way to think about these long novels/series is that they were originally read in small bites. You could listen to Trollope in monthly parts, interspersed with other things. And each “season” of Powell is about 24 hours, but that’s three novels; the individual texts are not that long. And no one has to listen to them one after another like I did–I got hooked.

      But in general, I think you should NOT take tips from me, because I think the way I listen is a problem. I often listen when I’m doing things like cooking dinner, and could/should be conversing with my family. Or when I’m walking the dog, and would better have some quiet time (though like you, I do sometimes feel the last thing I want after a long day of talking/listening is an audiobook).

      One of my big problems is that I can’t listen and do nothing, so if I’m not doing a chore/driving/etc. I will play solitaire on my iPod as I listen. And I’m kind of an addict. So I will say I’m going to sit down and listen to my book for 15 minutes before I do X and look up an hour later. THAT is not a tip I’d pass on to anyone! I either need to take up a useful craft like knitting or cut way back on my audio time. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Also, I have made peace with missing things because I’m listening. That is my biggest secret. I rarely go back–which is maybe why I re-listen to many favourites.

      • Sunita says:

        OK, this helps. I think I need to have the audiobook cued up when I commute, because once I’m in the groove of listening I keep going. I do walk a fair bit so I should be able to work them in that way. I don’t usually listen while cooking because that’s usually a joint project and a time when we catch up on the day.

        I play way too much Sudoku on my phone. I should combine that with listening!

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    My goal’s the opposite for 2016. I’m planning on trying more audiobooks. My next audiobook’s a Kinsale. After that, I plan on trying out a subscription of Audible with its two free books: a Simon Vance’s Victorian novel and a Juliet Stevenson’s Austen or a Phyllida Nash’s Heyer. That should give me a good idea of whether I’m a committed audiobook listener or not.

    My exposure to Trollope via Vance was fantastic. I’m hooked. I found that I did best with sitting in a chair/bed and listening. I could not focus on listening and doing something else either, or I missed some of the book and/or some of the chores. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m linear, a unitasker.

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