I am, literally, a bad reader. I have mild dyslexia and well remember, when reading Peyton Place in my youth, taking ‘sonofabitch’ as ‘sofabitch’ and thinking it was a piece of bordello furniture. I am also partially sighted and have difficulty reading in either bright or low light; and with poor peripheral vision I tend to miss the ends of lines. So the advent of audio tapes and of the Talking Book (pioneered by the RNIB) has been a splendid thing for me.
A conventional book provides particular pleasures – the look of the binding, the aesthetics of the typeface, the feel of the page – but a Talking Book does have one physical advantage: it is usually smaller and lighter, and so easier to pack. It leaves the listener freer, too, to respond to the ambience. Listening to a Talking Book where the only illumination is glimmering candlelight or a flickering fire is something all its own. Shadows emphasize mystery and Gothick horror, subdued light engenders romance, and comparative silence encourages confidentiality or even a sense of conspiracy with the author. I particularly recall being snowed in at New Year in an isolated country cottage where we had to resort to burning broken furniture in the stove for warmth. In these circumstances, we felt ourselves truly beleaguered in a Russian winter as we listened to Juliet Stevenson’s evocative reading of Anna Karenina.
The quality, character and intonation of the reader’s voice inevitably affect the listener’s experience. But there is still room for the imagination to bubble and create a personal vision. As Joyce Grenfell memorably put it in her wireless criticism for the Observer, ‘The pictures on radio are better.’ I find it extraordinary that there is no acknowledged system for the notation of the spoken voice – as there is for the singing voice and even for ballet choreography. During the past two years I have been working with Stephen Greif (an actor and re
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