I love an audiobook. I listen while I’m walking and find that thrillers are a particularly good spur to exercise. With a Tana French, Jo Nesbø or Gillian Flynn on the go, I’m desperate to find out what happens next, so I pound the streets, headphones clamped on, lost in the plot.
I’ve got my preferred readers, too, as the narrator can make or break a book. My favourites include Sam West reading The Day of the Triffids and his dad, Tim, reading Trollope; or Patricia Hodge bringing Nancy Mitford to life. Katherine Kellgren, who I encountered via Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, has a voice of such beauty that it is a sensual pleasure to have her murmuring in your ear. Tina Fey and David Sedaris, for their part, have both recorded audiobooks that are even funnier than the versions printed on paper.
You might think listening to a book is easier than reading, maybe even cheating, but it requires concentration. No flicking back, going: “Who’s that again? Have we met him before?” No sliding your eye over boring descriptions of landscape or weather. Listening is unabridged – you hear every word – but a skilful narrator makes the actual job of reading sound like a breeze, and, as I now know, this is not the case at all.
I’m in the studio this week reading my new book, Naked at the Albert Hall, and as I learned last year when recording Bedsit Disco Queen, it is a feat of endurance. You start in the morning and spend the first hour in your sealed, soundproofed booth getting warmed up, clearing your throat, and being told to slow down. In hour two you settle into a kind of rhythm and things start to flow, although at that point you begin to notice things about this book you’ve written. Reading aloud highlights every flaw, every clumsy construction; you hear how you could have phrased it better. Occasionally you think, hang on, is that true, is that what I really meant?
By the third hour it’s getting towards lunchtime and your stomach starts to rumble. This picks up on the mike, so the producer interrupts you after every growl to reread the last sentence, until after a while you have to stop and have a banana. Hour four flies by. You look at your watch and can’t believe the time, but your voice is getting husky and so you have a cup of something, preferably not tea or coffee, which will speed you up.
Hour five, your tongue starts to become clumsy in your mouth, as it does when you’re drunk. The saliva is drying up, so your mouth opens with a click every time you speak. The remedy for this is a green apple, so you eat a green apple, whether you want it or not. God, the amount of things you’ve eaten and drunk so far, just in order to read a book. Who knew?
Day two, you do it all again. You realise that the hard part isn’t the vocal tiredness but the concentration; the way in which – however slowly and clearly you try to read – the words seem to be speeding up on the page, rushing and rising towards you like the road in an arcade driving game. You stumble and falter. You have another banana. You hit a word you don’t know how to pronounce, someone’s name, maybe, which you’ve casually written but never said. You realise what a pretentious idiot you’ve been for writing a book that refers to Gramsci and Tannhäuser. But then again, it turns out you’re not sure how to pronounce “privacy”, or “inherently”, or “Deborah Kerr” either, so really you shouldn’t have written a book at all.
All in all, it’s hilariously exhausting, for something that sounds so easy. I listen to audiobooks now with a new sense of awe and heightened respect for whoever has done the reading. As I stagger to the end of my third day and finally turn the last page, I realise I am lucky to be able to escape and I can’t help thinking of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, held captive by the crazed Mr Todd, forced to read over and over again the complete works of Dickens. It’s always struck me as something of a nightmare ending for a book, but now – brrrr – it seems even more so.