I’m pretty sure we all have at least one guilty pleasure – that thing we do or enjoy, but we’re not sure that other people would approve of if they knew about it. Mine has lasted most of my life.
I can’t remember a time when books were anything but a core part of my environment. Our parents’ bookcase(s) provided us with an early introduction to fiction, fact, travel and poetry. Titles I remember in particular are 1000 Beautiful Things (Authur Mee), Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (ed. Francis Palgrave), The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. We all learned to read before we went to school and were encouraged to join the local Public library at an early age – both great strategic parental moves to keep children entertained and occupied.
However, even once I could read, I always enjoyed listening to one or other parent reading stories or poems out loud. They both had a gift for it, their voices clear and their delivery paced for our enjoyment. So it’s not surprising that, when my younger brother and I were given Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland 1965 Disneyland read-along storybook records, I was hooked. Each title was on a 33⅓ long-playing vinyl record and came with an illustrated Disney read-along book of the story.
They all started with a similar preamble: This is the story of <Alice in Wonderland>. You can read along with me in your book. You’ll know it’s time to turn the page when you hear the chimes ring like this: <the sound of Tinkerbelle’s chimes would ring here>. Let’s begin… It was a very effective format, enabling children of any reading age to follow the story via a combination of words, sound and pictures. They were narrated by Robie Lester and mine included the songs Alice in Wonderland and I’m Late (which I still sing to myself when I am running late).
Several years later I was given a small cassette tape recorder and, soon after, found that some libraries stocked ‘talking books’ for vision-impaired readers. Feeling more than slightly guilty, I tried adding one to my selection of books. To my surprise, the librarians simply issued the cassette like any other book. It was the start of my guilty pleasure. I call it that because, as an adult, I do sometimes feel slightly sheepish listening to stories instead of reading them – as though I’m taking the easy way out. In some instances, such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, this is actually true. I’ve tried to read this classic on a number of occasions, but simply couldn’t get past the first chapter. As an audio book, however, I could finally tick it off my bucket list.
This is because I find it enormously satisfying to sit and listen to a story, to have a tale narrated by someone who can bring the characters alive the way my parents used to when I was a child. The difference is that I can pause, rewind and replay these stories at will and can listen to them whilst gardening, knitting, driving, doing mosaic and so on. Audio books (and headphones) are also an insomniac’s best friends at dead of night, when turning on a light to read a physical book might disturb other family members.
Although I now subscribe to a paid audio book service, I still regularly borrow talking books (at no charge) through the public library system. A few of my recent favourites are the Girl Genius series (Phil & Kaja Foglio), Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman), The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion), A Conspiracy of Friends (Alexander McCall Smith), A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki) and Nation (Terry Pratchett). All are beautifully narrated, either by the author or by talented voice actors, and each provided me with hours of enjoyment.
I suspect that my slight feeling that talking books are an indulgence simply adds to their attraction, as with most guilty pleasures.