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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Listen to silence, feel its echo

The written word is beautiful to see and the paper always feels and smells special. If my finger traces the words of a brand-new book, the freshly inked letters seem to stand proud of the paper. Older, well-leafed pages with thumb-softened, yellowed borders carry a faint scent of cut wood, cold ash and forest clearings with a curl of smoke.

Words also sound beautiful. When authors used to introduce their own talking books, Thomas Mann, referring to his novel, Buddenbrooks, told his listeners:
"An epic is for the ear more than for the eye. In early times it was said and sung, it was listened to—and, as a matter of fact, this book too was listened to before it was looked at, when the young author read it aloud as he wrote it, to relatives and friends."
I know a man who is blind. He listens to talking books, especially character-driven stories about ordinary lives, which he orders via the RNIB. Only five percent of published books are available in this way, he told me, although the choice is still huge. He may not turn pages in his hands, but the recorded voice unfolds and shifts the scenes in his mind.

In fiction we all lose touch fleetingly with our own selves in order to slip into the worlds of others, to feel undercurrents heaving with secrets, to witness the struggle against the gathering waves and to worry that the protagonist might be swept away. Whether we hear the words or see them, the most important part is to feel their weight and search their strata.

Without being able to see the words, without feeling the paper and breathing in the scent of the pages, perhaps the layers of the story and the characters become even more profound. 

The descriptions of what my friend 'saw' when he listened to one particular book we discussed showed that my interpretation of the characters was shallower than his. I had absorbed far less, unrolled fewer layers. He had uncovered greater depths and unearthed more hidden treasure than I had managed to find.

However,  the words alone had not led him to these discoveries. All that was unsaid/unwritten, all the pauses/paragraph breaks and every discreet trace of foreboding spoke to him too.  When I had turned the pages, I missed some of those shadows and echoes. My friend who listens, saw them all.

Brian loves the fragrance of paper, occasionally attacks it, and listens to first drafts without wincing.


  1. My gorgeous husband, David, reads aloud to me, a lot of the books we buy. The spoken word certainly adds another dimension to the written word. And we two read as one, me listening along with my ears and mind's eye. Tying Down The Lion, Joanna, was such a wonderful shared experience, we laughed together, teared-up together and, if I loved a particular passage (and there were many) he'd indulge me by reading it again - bliss!

  2. Myra, this is truly music to my ears. I adore the thought of your lovely husband reading books to you. And that Tying Down The Lion was a book you shared in this way is absolutely wonderful to know. It feels as if every moment of the thousands spent writing it is a puzzle-piece, and all those pieces are now flying together and slotting into place. I wrote it purely to entertain and whenever I am told that it did so, I cannot begin to express how happy it makes me feel. It's only since knowing that readers have enjoyed it that I feel it is actually complete.
    When I read it aloud during revisions and editing, there were some passages that kept making me laugh or cry. I hoped so much that I wouldn't be the only one, and that one day, it would move others as well. So thank you from my heart for letting me know. Our thoughts on reading aloud remind me of times when I was young and used to read aloud to my mother when she was doing the housework, following her from room to room. There was one book - 'Chocky' by John Wyndham - that reduced us both to tears on the final page and my mother said it was hearing my voice falter as I read it that heightened the emotion in the last sentence. (I have the hugest lump in my throat remembering that - because of the sharing aspect of it, the unity of that moment.)

    Thank you so, so much, Myra, for such a thoughtful and heartwarming comment and I wish you and David many, many more happy times reading together. It really does sound blissful. xxx

  3. What a lovely thought-provoking post, Joanna. I think we lose a lot through reading on an e-reader, even though that's the way I read in bed for comfort sake. But I still prefer to read a paperback downstairs. My grandfather was blind and he came to stay with us when I was a child. He was amazing and read in Braille. He also taught me to play dominoes and tell the time using the raised dots on the dominoes and on his watch. I used part of this memory in a published children's story in an anthology ages ago. I'm sure having to use his fingers to read ore slowly must have imparted more meaning. He also enjoyed listening to the radio. Thanks for making me remember this again!

    1. Thank you so much, Rosemary, for sharing these lovely memories of your grandfather. It's wonderful that he could teach you using the raised dots. And I'm sure you're right about the need to read more slowly imparting more meaning. My friend remembered far more detail about the book we had both read than I did and showed me insights that gave it more depth. Although I thought I read pretty slowly and spend time thinking about stories and their characters afterwards, I probably only scratch the surface compared to his interpretations.
      I'm so glad the post brought back these beautiful memories of your grandfather. He sounds amazing and I can imagine your children's story is a very special one indeed. xxx

  4. This is a really interesting post, Joanna. I sometimes find it difficult paying attention to stories being read aloud and usually prefer to 'get lost' in the words on a page, but then I think back to how much I loved stories being read to me as a child at bedtime, or in school, and I think those were probably crucial moments allowing my visual imagination to develop! I think your book would work very well being read aloud with all of the vivid descriptions and 'voices' of the characters!

  5. Thank you so much, Vikki, for your comment. Like you, my mind tends to wander when I'm listening. I remember loving the teacher reading to us at school, but afterwards wondering what the story was all about! I tend to daydream and make up stories of my own when I'm meant to be listening. I'm sure you're right that it is nevertheless a chance to let our imaginations develop further, way beyond the story that is being read to us. I would so love to hear TDTL read aloud - especially to hear Grandma's voice! Thank you again, Vikki, for your insight and kind words. xx

  6. I used to deliver talking books to a blind neighbour. She was frustrated by the choice - 'Not enough real literature' - and also by some of the readers, whose diction was not to her liking. I wonder if we have lost the knack of listening to spoken words. I often tune into the Radio 4 dramas and, of course, the Book at Bedtime, but am ashamed to say I tend to nod off!

  7. Thank you so much for commenting, Julia. I can imagine your neighbour's frustration at not having a wide enough choice and also how annoying it must be if you don't enjoy the voice of the reader. I know what you mean about nodding off! However enthusiastic I am about listening to radio drama or stories, I feel my mind wandering and then my eyes gradually closing...!