The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
Since going bionic, I’ve started reading books again in a big way.
I’m reading them in a different way to before. I now download them as unabridged audiobooks and ebooks from iTunes. I then read the book on the iPad, connected directly to the headphone jack and hearing a voice reading the words to me, chapter by chapter.
It’s tricky to do, as I’m not yet at the stage of fully understanding speech without lipreading or subtitles. Most audiobooks come as one large, unbroken audio file of between 5 and 10 hours in length. The start of many audiobooks include spoken copyright information, the name of the author, the publishing house, and so on. If I lose my place in a chapter I have to return to the start and try again.
To get started I listen until I can hear ‘Chapter 1′, then make a note of the timecode for the start of the chapter, then start reading, playing the audio in the background as I follow the story in iBooks, turning the pages virtually as I go. Sometimes I try to close my eyes and see how long I can listen before the words start to dissolve into unintelligible blobs of sound again. Then I open my eyes and try to find my way back to the written word again. Most times, I can do it.
I’m reading one chapter from each of four audiobooks each day. A chapter from an audiobook can be between five and fifteen minutes, so that adds up to around an hour’s reading time a day in total.
I’m trying to read the four different audiobooks simultaneously for variety more than anything. Game of Thrones is read by an 85yr old stage actor called Roy Dotrice whose voice is quite soft, and the edges of his words aren’t always easy to make out. Casino Royale is by Dan Stevens, better known as Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey (so I’m told anyway).
Stevens’ voice is stronger and clearer than Dotrice’s, but his cadences and rhythms vary quite widely, some sentences spoken in a hurried whisper, interspersed with pregnant pauses. I like hearing him say phrases like ‘The Societe des Bains de Mer de Royale’ – he says them the way I used to say them in my head when I read the paperback as a student, 20 odd years ago. Tina Fey’s autobiography is hard to follow. Her voice is quite high, and she speaksreallyfastwithoutpausingforbreath. But luckily her chapters are quite short and sweet.
My favourite voice of all is probably the anonymous American man who reads The Talented Mr Ripley. I’ve read Highsmith’s novel several times already ever since watching Plein Soleil at the cinema. For the first time I feel like the original book is as good as, if not better than, the film adaptation.
I’m learning to discriminate between male and female voices, between old and young, between British and American. I’m learning the subtle differences between the way the same word can be pronounced differently by four people.
Most importantly, listening to and reading audiobooks has taught me a long forgotten skill. The ability to concentrate. Until recently I’d spend my days lurching from a 7am baby feed to twitter to facebook to email to skype chat to an amusing picture on the internet to filling out a form to making an online bank transfer to reading a newspaper article to writing a script to having a meeting to checking my tumblr favourites. I’d long lost the ability to concentrate on one single task at a time.
Now, with these audiobooks, I find my mind becoming an oasis of calm. One activity, one purpose. When I plug myself directly into the headphone socket, all the outside noises go away and it’s just me, an iPad, and someone telling me a story that I’ve heard before, but I don’t mind hearing again and again.
I’ve also unlearned another bad habit – skim reading. I would plough through books in the past without always taking in every word properly. Now with the help of a voice reading along, I have to pace myself – and it makes the book an even richer and more detailed experience than before.
This is all part of my long term training montage – but is it working? I think it is. I listened to an audiobook with my hearing aids a week before my operation. I could only follow the words through the rhythm of the speech. I couldn’t hear the words themselves. I had to work them out by the number of syllables. Now, words are sounding clearer and more distinct every time I start a new chapter. Behind the scenes, my brain is pedalling furiously on an exercise bike, a couple of earbuds jammed into its ears.
I’ll probably read these audiobooks more than once. Eventually, through practice, I might even be able to listen to these audiobooks without the help of the written word at all. Maybe.