About twenty of my books have had the treatment, mostly Cliff Hardys, but at least one each in the Crawley and the Browning series and, of course, the Fred Hollows autobiography. The connection between the talking book and sight impairment is inescapable.
My practice, when the packages have arrived – initially as sets of cassettes and lately as CDs – has been to listen for a few minutes to see if the voice fits the character and the delivery is good and then switch off. I was always impressed by the bits I listened to. Among the readers were Colin Friels and Robert Menzies and their considerable talents were on display. They were able to vary their voices to render different characters and to suggest the female voice without falling into parody.
A friend had a blind relative and I passed the recordings over to her. After that person died I gave them to another friend who donated them to the nursing home where her aged mother was living. Later I gave them to a golfing mate who drove long distances and enjoyed playing them as he drove.
In recent times my eyesight has deteriorated so that I struggle to read normal-sized print in books and newspapers. Spectacles and a magnifying glass help, along with big print but I mostly read books now on a Kindle with a blown-up font.
My ophthalmologist tells me I’m unlikely to go completely blind but you never know. Milton’s daughters read to him; I have three daughters but that was then and this is now. If I go blind, talking books would be the only available option, so I decided to try them out. If that was to be the future I wanted to be ready.
The question for me was: would the voice conjure up the images in my mind as happens when I read a book? The Newtown branch of the City of Sydney library has a large collection of talking books on CD, packaged, interestingly, to resemble hardcover books.
I chose for my trial A Rogue’s Life by Wilkie Collins. It was a deliberately severe test. When much younger and with better sight, I read reams of Hardy and Trollope with great enjoyment. Now I find them impossibly wordy. How would the reading of Wilkie Collins, not known for his succinctness, stand up?
Again I was impressed. Bernard Mayes, an actor and broadcaster, delivered a superb reading. A master of accents and voice colour, he brought the picaresque Collins tale to life. Listening, I was there in the cobblestoned streets of Victorian London.
So, if the shadows were to draw in, talking books would be – along with a compact CD player and, to spare others, headphones – a solace. I might be able to enjoy the Victorians again, but I suspect the wordiness of Dickens would still defeat me as it always has.