The first serious book I ever read was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. It was the compulsory text for my English Literature O level and I still have the thin Penguin Classic edition with passages underlined in pencil. Reading it transformed my perspective on fiction, setting the tone for the novels I'd prefer thereafter. And ironically, for a boy who loathed the prospect of double English every Thursday, it is one of the few physical legacies of my school days.
Brighton Rock is also the only book that I can say with confidence I've read three times. In my twenties, I went through almost every other title by Greene, but most have sat unopened on my bookshelves ever since. Only recently have I started to revisit them, reminding myself of how excellent a writer he was, and how the recurring themes of his work mirror questions I've wrestled with all my life. Listening to them now, with the benefit of half a century's experience, it's obvious how his character's inner struggles are as autobiographical as their colonial settings.
I used the words 'revisit' and 'listening' in the last paragraph because I've not been rereading the novels as such. Rather, I've been playing them on Audible, one of my more delightful discoveries this year. The author Stephen King in his book 'On Writing' recommends listening regularly to audiobooks, saying he always has one on the go. And yet, despite my considering his advice to be generally excellent, the only ones I'd ever previously bought were children's CDs to keep our boys amused on long car journeys.
It's interesting though, how they remember them still.
Listening to books being read aloud is a different experience from holding a copy in your hands. I'm glad to have 'read' Greene's complex novels first, albeit decades ago. But I'm glad too that I can listen to them again now, in the gym (yes, really!), in my car; walking on the beach... As I do so, I often think of my grandfather and how as he grew progressively more blind he went from those dreadful large print books to fiddly eight-track cassettes and eventually to the limited fare on the radio because there was nothing else available. How thrilled he'd have been with today's technology.
Many writers dislike e-readers, and perhaps understandably, booksellers are non too keen either. But it's worth reflecting on how almost overnight they increased the quality and quantity of titles available to those with visual impairment. The early versions of the Kindle even had a text-to-voice transcription, which though somewhat robotic was a godsend to many. For those of us who struggle with small print, the ability to change the point size at the touch of a button is almost as transformative.
Audible takes all this step further with top-quality narrators, synchronisation features that allow you to skip from e-book to audio and back again, and a catalogue that's more extensive than most local libraries. And there must be many people for whom simply finding the time to read is a challenge with busy jobs, young families and household chores to juggle —yet their daily commute might provide many hours for books they'd never get round to otherwise — I know my son listens every day on his walk to work.
And so for someone who was very sceptical of 'yet another subscription' I have to say, I'm a convert. I suppose part of the reason is that I believe we should recognise where progress has genuinely been made. I've no affinity to Amazon and am as aware as anyone that as a company they're far from saints (oh how Graham Greene is that). But Audiobooks (of which Audible dominates) are now the fastest-growing sector of the market, introducing millions of listeners to books of all types. Some will no doubt remain wary and curmudgeonly regardless, but I reckon their success is worth celebrating.
All of which is a bit of a ramble from Brighton Rock and my school age curriculum. Although, isn't that how reading and writing go. Like so many of Greene's characters, we stumble from one situation to another, carrying our crosses to an uncertain destiny... Okay, let's not stretch the metaphor too far... The point, if there is one at all, is that good literature endures, whatever form it takes —from Brighton Rock to blogs; from Penguin to Kindle, from O level to Audible; it's all the same thing.