Always said I’d never do this again. After years working my way through the British Higher Education system followed by several years’ work towards my basic library qualifications…then another seven years of Open University work – I told myself enough was enough. I always enjoyed the actual study component of being a student. It was the assignment deadlines that did for me. The jangled nerves, the late night panic as deadline day approached and I’d once again utterly failed to keep to my schedule… couldn’t ever see myself wanting to drop back into that routine.
Never say never. I would appear – almost by accident – to have become a student again. Sort of. He’s back… and this time it’s totally voluntary.
If you use Amazon, LoveFilm or any number of online retailers these days you’ll be familiar with Audible’s banner advertising. As an Amazon company, they’re everywhere. If you’ve not encountered them before…. they deal in spoken word material. Unabridged readings of novels, dramatic works, radio broadcasts, speeches…if it’s commercially available, chances are they carry it. You can either purchase each item on spec or take out a subscription plan where for a fixed price each month you get a certain amount of credits which can then be redeemed against your purchases.
What you get comes to you in Audible’s own proprietary format, usually (although not yet universally) playable on any number of devices. Most mp3 players and mobile phones can handle the format with no problem, and it’s 100 percent compatible with iTunes. I lament the absence of any packaging – I do love a nicely researched sleeve-note - but the extensive cloud-based library of purchases I’ve built up over the last few years is one of my very favourite things. I love being able to just grab an audiobook when I need it.
If you’re making a single purchase you’ll frequently find some of their enormous unabridged recordings are pegged at the higher end of the price range. Usually you’ll pay something close to the publisher’s recommended retail price. If you’re a subscriber you can redeem your monthly credit against these higher-end items as well – one credit equals one purchase. In the past I’ve gloried in almost 60 hours worth of unabridged readings for the cost of my single subscription credit – £8 instead of £40-50. It all balances out.
Obviously I use my monthly subscription to feed my BBC habit. Dick Barton, Goon Show, Journey Into Space… all of the usual, timeless suspects. Occasionally though – Audible will throw something at me that I wouldn’t normally consider trying. Invariably I’m hooked in. Last time this happened it was with a series called Shakespeare Appreciated – such a blindingly simple idea, in which a particular play is taken line by line with context and discussion, followed by a full, unabridged performance. The depth of understanding I’ve gained from working my way through these… well, they really do feel like a completely different and new play each time.
It’s happened again. I stumbled across a series of releases recently called Modern Scholar, released by a company known as Recorded Books. They’re effectively a series of University-Level lectures delivered by academics who clearly not only know exactly what they’re talking about – but also who love what they’re talking about. Normally they’re about 10-14 specially recorded lectures, running at about half an hour each. The Modern Scholar website has supplementary material and if you choose to do so there’s an online exam you can take at the end of your listening to test how much you’ve learnt. They’re not dry or dull in any sense – they crackle with enthusiasm and they’re really rather wonderful.
I’m working through The World of George Orwell at the moment. Presented by Professor Michael Shelden – lecturer at Indiana State University and long-term features editor at the Daily Telegraph, these lectures sing. I thought I knew a fair bit about Eric Blair. These recordings show me that I very much don’t.
Orwell’s always fascinated me, but he’s a bit shadowy. Outwith of the novels his journalism is compelling - the burning anger of pieces like “A Hanging”, the shame of the narrator in “Shooting an Elephant”, the clinical detachment of Down and Out in Paris and London… all of this, I know. That’s Orwell. Eric Blair… he’s another figure altogether. What you get in Orwell’s writing is what he chooses to tell you – we edit our own lives and it’s telling that after his first published book Orwell switched to fiction, while still apparently using characters and situations from his own experiences. Certain aspects of the man’s past appear to be laid bare in those early books. You can never be too sure.
So much of Blair’s early background has suddenly been filled in, the early novels have gained context I didn’t even know they needed (Burmese Days, especially – I never knew much about the vigorous real life of the thinly disguised femme fatale ), and each talk is crammed full of “I didn’t know that!” moments. I had no clue – just as an example – that one of Blair’s criteria for choosing his pen-name was simply that if his name started with an “O” he’d be filed more or less at eye-level in most contemporary bookshops. These lectures are full of minutiae like that, and more.
By the time I’m done I know that I’ll be starting at Down and Out in Paris and London and reading everything all over again. Job done. After which, I think it’ll be time to dive in and try their Life and Times of Mark Twain course – again by Shelden, whose halting, earnest delivery suits these lectures to a T.
I genuinely can’t recommend these highly enough. Purchased from their own website, these courses are pretty expensive (albeit having worked my way through this one, I think they’re worth every penny). Via Audible I’m able to get them for 8 pounds a go and they’re enriching my life immeasurably. I heartily suggest you allow them to do the same for you.
Well, well, well. All of a sudden, I’m a student again. Never thought I’d see the day.