For those staying at home during the pandemic, the entertainment options might soon run low. There are only so many podcasts released each week, and streaming TV shows and films for 18 hours straight is no more practical than reading books all day, if one has to be moving around cooking, exercising, or preventing small children from maiming themselves with unexpected household objects. So perhaps the long-form audiobook deserves a top slot in the menu of, I’m sorry, quarantainment.
This might be a good chance to catch up on classics from previous centuries. An unavoidable monument here – and already a recent bestseller on Scribd, which has just announced that all its books and audiobooks will be available free for 30 days — is The Plague by Albert Camus. This is the tale of a small French-Algerian town cut off from the outside world after an outbreak of bubonic plague, which its citizens at first refuse to believe is a serious threat. The central character, a doctor, remarks that his fellow townspeople in this respect “were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.”
Long celebrated as a masterful allegory of Nazi occupation, The Plague is also a story of qualified hope, as a kind of existential solidarity persists while the storm rages outside. Some British listeners might, however, find themselves irritated by the American-accented narration in the only audiobook edition, which has a certain amount of trouble with the French names, and opt instead for Daniel Defoe’s grisly yet also undespairing A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), as narrated in the reassuringly Beebish tones of Andrew Cullum.
A more purely escapist experience might be the great epic of comfortable society in France. If there is an ultra-endurance champion among audiobook readers, it must be the late actor Neville Jason, who recorded every single word (there are more than a million) of Proust’s great novel sequence, In Search of Lost Time (or, in the Scott Moncrieff translation used for the audiobook, originally Remembrance of Things Past). It runs to 150 hours, or a bit less than a couple of hours every day for 12 weeks. At one point in the third volume, Proust’s narrator remarks: “It is illness that makes us recognise that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
The vagaries of this being from a different realm are the subject of Bill Bryson’s most recent book, narrated with his usual charm by the author himself. The Body is ideal for the audio format, being a warm and engaging tour through the amazing facts of human physiology, with plenty of “did you know?” moments to keep the household entertained. Did you know, for example, that scientists have determined that scratching your back gives the most long-lasting relief, but scratching your ankle brings the most pleasure?
The more you learn about your body, the more of a miracle it seems, if you’re lucky enough to have one that is still more or less in working order, even if no pandemic is raging. At one point Bryson, who throughout assumes a rather portly audience, exhorts you to “get up and move around a little”. This is rather difficult if one is reading, and wants to continue reading, the print version, but it’s fine advice for the shut-in listener.
More purely escapist comfort listening is the classic BBC dramatisation of all of John le Carré’s classic George Smiley books: nowadays the cold war represents a simpler, even cosier time in the popular imagination, and Smiley himself, an owlish wanderer through the world’s shades of grey, represents in some ways the kind of prime minister we are not allowed to have any more. He is played in this “full-cast audiobook” (jargon for, essentially, a repackaged radio drama) by the great Simon Russell Beale.
And if that still proves a little too this-worldly, there are more fantastical options. Those who like their medieval fantasy nonsense with a side order of sarcastic wit and catchy songs will have been bereft once they’d finished bingeing on the first season of The Witcher, starring as the grey-ponytailed monster hunter. A diversion for the ears while fans wait for the second TV series are the audiobooks of the original novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. They begin with the gloriously titled Blood of Elves, which may recall the deathless comment of literary scholar Hugo Dyson, who was one of the “Inklings” to whom Tolkien used to read instalments of Lord of the Rings. On one such occasion, Dyson is said to have groaned: “Oh fuck, not another elf.”
A serene attitude towards the undesired appearance of elves, as well as towards much else, was cultivated by the great Stoics of classical times, among them the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His Meditations, read in suitably imperial manner by Duncan Steen, are more authentically inspiring than any modern “inspirational” memes – and often quite funny. “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority,” he wrote, “but to avoid finding oneself among the ranks of the insane.” And remember: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.”
If, as a kind of exercise in meditating upon how things could be even worse, you wish to catch up on the latest expert thinking about alternative apocalypses, there is Stuart Russell’s excellent Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control, read by Raphael Corkhill. Russell, a pioneer in machine intelligence, here considers the increasingly fashionable subject of what to do if a superintelligent AI is created and then takes over the world – or rather, how to stop that from happening.
He provides a vivid and clear history of computing, and explains the problems inherent in trying to “load” values into AI so as to prevent it from trying to destroy us. He concludes that trying to give it any values at all is a mug’s game. Instead, the AI should be taught a humble attention to humans’ wishes. Particularly apt at the moment, when Facebook is “accidentally” censoring reliable news while blithely enabling the transmission of misinformation, is Russell’s argument that we all have an inalienable right “to live in a largely true information environment”, the draconian enforcement of which cannot come soon enough.
A celebrity reader, meanwhile, is often a powerful draw for an audiobook. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale is available in editions read by Claire Danes or Elisabeth Moss, star of the TV series, while none other than Meryl Streep has recorded Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. And in case you have never got through, or started, Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps the existence of an audiobook of the Robert Fagles translation, read by Ian McKellen, will finally render the prospect irresistible.
Most authors are not the ideal readers of their own work – and why should they be? Writing prose and being able to read aloud in such a way as to hold a listener’s attention are two entirely different skills that happen to coexist in one person only by pure coincidence. One delightful such coincidence is novelist Anne Enright, whose performance of her own widely admired new novel, Actress, brings out all the mischievous empathy of her writing. Perhaps it is something to do with being Irish, because Marian Keyes also reads her new book, Grown Ups, with a nicely understated wit.
In a way, David Cameron is also the ideal reader of his own work, if only because you would feel sorry for anyone else who had to do it. For some light comic relief, it is possible to listen to the architect of Britain’s last disaster before the present one reading his own memoir, imaginatively entitled For the Record, as though carefully holding a quail’s egg in his mouth while insisting that the Brexit referendum he didn’t have to call was “necessary” and “inevitable”. From the somewhat rustic ambience of the recording, one may happily imagine him narrating it from his expensive wheeled shed in the Cotswolds, the kind of civilised retreat to which we might all wish we now had access.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus. Read his word of the week column here