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Readers who struggle to engage with an ambitious piece of fiction should try listening to it instead – some works just lend themselves to the audio treatment

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The best thing about Milkman, Anna Burns’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, is that it’s a superbly detailed moment-by-moment chronicle of an 18-year-old’s inner thoughts as she navigates the treacherous complications of life in Belfast during the deadly Troubles of the late 1970s.

The worst thing about Milkman, Anna Burns’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, is that it’s a superbly detailed moment-by-moment chronicle of an 18-year-old’s inner thoughts that is 352 pages long. Demanding literary novels told from a single interior point of view are all the rage these days (thank you, Rachel Cusk). Milkman’s interior tunnel is long and narrow. It does not conform to standard paragraph form. There are no comforting blocks of dialogue, only conversations remembered within the mental monologue of the girl narrator, who is unnamed. No one in the book has a name, in fact, but is referred to as Somebody McSomebody or Tablets Girl or Maybe-Boyfriend or Eldest Sister, reflecting the paranoia of Belfast’s factionalized residents, who fear the consequences (death at the hands of roving paramilitary squads) of naming names and thus being branded informers. These secrets in turn make everyone suspicious of any behaviour that doesn’t conform to local customs.

In other words, Milkman is a dead-on portrait of the claustrophobia of an adolescent mind within the even more oppressive claustrophobia of a totalitarian state. It’s a brilliant book. It’s also exhausting to read. Describing a closed society requires dense, closed writing, and on the page, Milkman can be as impenetrable as Kevlar. Passages of great beauty alternate with wads of glue. Thirty pages was the most I could manage at a sitting, but even five could render me unconscious.

The good news? The audiobook’s a breeze! A deft narration by 64-year-old Northern Irish actor Brid Brennan transforms Burns’s writing into a spoken yarn. When Brennan says a word like “round,” her lemon-rinsed Belfast accent puckers it into at least four separate syllables. You can feel the hard bite of Northern Ireland in every sentence, and the city’s psychological pace in the flurry of her diction: People here need to get all their words out before it’s too late. The high-minded difficulty of Milkman’s written text evaporates, leaving only a funny, intelligent voice behind.

How does that happen? And why is it happening so often these days? Audiobook sales shot up more than 37 per cent last year (the third year in a row), driven by downloading and ever more artful vocal staging. (Physical book sales were up a puny 5 per cent, and e-books fell.) Nearly 50,000 new audiobooks are released every year in North America alone.

Sloggish masterpieces now enjoy robust afterlives as ripping digital yarns. There are already classics of the genre and go-to narrator/readers. The Word of Promise Audio Bible (New King James Version) features sound effects, an interactive score, Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene, and Jason Alexander (George on Seinfeld) as a nebbishy Joseph. It’s 98 hours long, costs $61.33, and is like listening to your own conscience as it wanders through the Teletubby version of Galilee. I recommend it. The soon-to-be released talkie version of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle is even longer, at 133 hours. Abridged readings, common 20 years ago, no longer exist; skilled single narrators who voice every word of every character in a story (as is the case in Milkman) now compete with full troupes of actors reading individual parts.

Do not misunderstand, daring reader: I’m not suggesting books can be replaced by audiobooks. I often like to bang my head against a difficult but rewarding slab of text. For instance, I motored through Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, a book that ought to come with a helmet and an insurance policy. But life is short. Maybe reading doesn’t have to be that much agony. Because here’s the really wild thing: Even in the formal parlour of highbrow literature, still one of the stuffiest rooms in contemporary culture, listening to a novel is now as acceptable as having read the monster.

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Milkman is a psychological masterpiece, no one’s denying that. The narrator, a watchful young woman, commits the cardinal sin of being different in a culture that has forbidden difference. She has a single eccentric habit: She reads books while she walks. This is deemed aberrant, therefore suspicious, thus the subject of gossip, which brings her into the sights of the Milkman, an older, high-ranking paramilitary. The Milkman wants the young female narrator as his lover, and begins to stalk and isolate and coerce her. He insinuates that her boyfriend, the aforementioned Maybe-Boyfriend, has committed a sin punishable by car bomb.

Maybe-Boyfriend’s crime? He collects car parts, and owns a supercharger hood that bears a decal of a British flag. In Belfast during the Troubles, you could be ratted out for drinking the wrong lager or supporting the wrong football team or liking James Bond. If you did watch James Bond, “you didn’t make a point of saying so; also you kept the volume very, very low." Milkman is a novel about competing moralities, and all of them are mendacious.

Burns’s depiction of the way Belfast’s bullied burghers think is sharp and tight and often funny. But it’s work. Losing the thread in Milkman left me again and again in a deep dark wood, afraid I would never be found again: I kept tracking back, to ferret out where I had drifted off course. But when the story is read in Brennan’s lilting voice, the narration carries you forward on a wave. You may not know how long it has been since you fell off the surfboard, but you’re still swimming. Neurological research suggests there are reasons for this. Reading symbols on a page engages the crowded and ultradetailed visual cortex, which produces very specific (and sometimes overwhelming) word associations. Listening to a text, on the other hand, leaves fewer details stuck in one’s memory, but produces a readier grasp of the passage’s deeper meaning. Listening is our evolutionary default mode. Shakespeare is easier to understand onstage than he is on the page.

That ease is one reason book-listening has a less-than-serious reputation compared to upwardly mobile, middle-class book reading. Thomas Edison dictated Mary Had a Little Lamb onto a tinfoil cylinder as early as 1877, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the first audiobook records were produced, specifically for blind readers. (The first seems to have been a recording of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, though the Gospel of St. John – in which Jesus cures a blind man – wasn’t far behind.) When Matthew Rubery, a professor of modern literature at London’s Queen Mary University, started work on The Untold Story of the Talking Book, published in 2016, colleagues turned up their noses and refused to write letters of reference. He traces their disdain to the 1920s, to the rise of modernism in university English departments – "the notion that literature should be difficult.” The result, Rubery explained recently, is that “audiobooks are the Rodney Dangerfields of literature. They don’t get no respect.” Meanwhile, he claims, “the audiobook is the only form of reading that has consistently increased in the past decade.” Dumbing down didn’t do it; driving did, along with commuting and the widespread use of smartphones starting in 2010.

“I don’t think there is any single kind of reading,” Rubery added. Each method has its pleasures. Reading Milkman, you understand the book from the point of view of the writer – which Nabokov said was the deepest way to understand fiction. When you listen to a book – say, Nabokov’s Lolita, narrated by Jeremy Irons, already a classic in Audiobookland – you understand it from the point of view of the characters. Ian Pearson, who read 80 novels a year as Peter Gzowski’s books producer on the CBC Radio show Morningside and now ingests about 40 audiobooks per annum, still recalls listening to Sabbath’s Theatre, Philip Roth’s filth-strewn account of a sex-obsessed 64-year-old. "You’re walking quietly around town, looking like an ordinary old man, and meanwhile, thanks to this great narration of this compelling story in your head, you just feel like the biggest pervert in the world.” The secret thrill of doing one thing with your mind while appearing to do something else entirely with your body is part of the new charm of audiobooks. You feel like you’re wearing a cloak of invisibility. Listening to a book turns out to be as private as reading one.

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I called Ian Pearson because he’s one of the most widely read people I know. He developed his audiobook habit three years ago because he owns two energetic dogs and has to walk them for an hour or two every day. Before he took up listening to novels, his fiction intake had declined dramatically. His eyes were getting weaker, limiting the time he could read. Then there was the distraction factor. “When I’m reading at home, I’m so distracted by the internet or by my phone, music, TV. But when I’m walking and listening, I have no other distraction. Audiobooks enforce that attention span. So audiobooks have completely revived my enjoyment of fiction.”

He loved audio Milkman. “It’s one of the best ones I’ve read,” he said. “I mean, listened to. The narrator is so perfect for that writer’s voice. What might be somewhat difficult stream-of-consciousness on the page becomes natural and accessible when it’s spoken aloud.” She also performs the male voices in the book in such a way that Mr. Pearson knew they were males – a talent the audiobook narrator of, say, Michael Redhill’s excellent novel Bellevue Square doesn’t share. “Even though the narrator is a woman, there’re a lot of men in that story,” Mr. Pearson said. “And she couldn’t do them convincingly.”

A couple of years ago, – the Amazon-owned company that produces more than 90 per cent of North America’s audiobooks – had a sale, and Mr. Pearson picked up a shelfload of classics. (He’s also a fan of the Toronto Public Library’s free audiobook borrowing app.) It took him three months to listen to all 12 volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. “That was a book I’d started a couple of times and never got engaged in. I owned the whole set. And it’s one of those things that just stares you down. But when you’re listening, it’s not as intimidating.“

That’s the first commandment of the audiobook kingdom: If you have always wanted to read a classic, but could never engage, try listening to it instead. It doesn’t always work: Fact-filled non-fiction can be a dry listen (especially if it’s verveless, stylistically), and some novels don’t translate well to audio. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, a novel about a woman who travels incessantly, is too aphoristic to work in the ear. But it’s a sharply funny read. The old view, the traditional, serious, High Lit view, was that reading one’s writing aloud was cheating; it encouraged the addition of emotional inflection where possibly insufficient inflection existed, “making what I’ve written seem for the moment better than it is,” as Nicholson Baker once put it. (He nevertheless narrates the audiobook of one of his own later novels, Traveling Sprinkler, to good effect.) But that point of view is now so old-fashioned, so starkly predigital and non-commercial, that it ought to have its own diorama in a museum. Here’s the new, alternative approach: If an audiobook gets you to ingest War and Peace or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and surrender to points of view other than your own, so much the better.

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The choice of narrator can make or ruin an audiobook. Sometimes an author is an even more compelling reader than she is a writer – Tanya Tagaq’s performance of her memoir Split Tooth is riveting – and sometimes she is not (Anakana Schofield reading Bina). Canadian audiobooks are increasingly ambitious: Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light features four readers, including David Ferry, Mary Lewis and Gordon Pinsent.

Classic narrations already exist in the audio genre. Martin Jarvis, performing P.G. Wodehouse (Eddie Izzard also does a brilliant set of Jeeves tales, but they are on CD, and hard to find); Jim Dale, the literal wizard who narrates all the Harry Potter novels; Tom Stechschulte, whose rasp of a voice reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road makes you think this is the final task he is going to shoulder before he takes the last steps of his life: He will read this book and then he will be gone, will be no more. Julia Whelan (Gone Girl, Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, many others) has more or less copyrighted the voice of the Witty Ironic Female Observer. One of Pearson’s favourite narrators is Juliet Stevenson reading Middlemarch. "She could do any voice, male or female, low class or high, rustic or city. And she didn’t get all Masterpiece Theatre, class-in-England about it, either.”

The book that kicked off the most recent boom in extra-ambitious audiobooks was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man Booker Prize winner, originally written as a play, about Abraham Lincoln’s long, strange mourning of the death of his beloved 10-year-old son, Willie. The book has 166 characters, and the audiobook has that many speaking parts. Some people hate reading the book and love listening to the recording, others vice versa; some do both at once, book on lap and earphones in.

Kelly Gildea directed and produced Lincoln in the Bardo for PenguinRandomHouse after Saunders phoned her and said he couldn’t handle reading the entire work himself, as he had his past collections of stories. (He’s a really good reader.) Gildea, who studied film and directing at college, admits she was at first “a little panicky” about the project. “How the hell am I going to do this?” Her usual approach is to find a perfect narrator, “because a narrator can save something, or absolutely tank it. It’s acting, but it’s also storytelling. The job is truly finding people who have both skills.” But Bardo needed 166 narrators.

The result was “a broad spectrum of voices” – including celebrities such as Lena Dunham and David Sedaris – “which I think is the point of the book,” Gildea says. She needed five months to record seven and a half hours of acceptable tape: Every voice was recorded separately, and “the edit was just a beast unto itself.” Her goal in any audiobook is to produce a new version of an existing work, one that has its own intrinsic value, that brings a new kind of pleasure to a writer’s fans. “I hope that’s what Bardo is. The fact that there are so many actors in the book who are famous today makes it a document.” Her next project is an all-cast recording of Charlotte’s Web, in which Meryl Streep reads the narrative and a roster of as-yet-undisclosed actors read the voices of the characters. Purists will object. But try to imagine how many copies that will sell.

That may be the most radical development of the recent audiobook surge. Listening isn’t reading, but it’s increasingly as good as reading, and sometimes better, and it’s way more satisfying than watching the movie. “I believe if you listen to the audio,” Gildea says, gently, “you have experienced the book. You don’t have to use the verb ‘read.’ But you experienced the book.”

As the heroine of Milkman comes to understand, the longer someone accepts her life in a totalitarian culture, the more likely she is to become totalitarian herself, one whose resigned motto is, as Burns puts it, "What’s the point? There’s no use in having any point.” What’s required to break the totalitarian grip of incessant judgment, and of the conformity it breeds, is someone daring enough to stop separating the world into black or white, right or wrong, Catholic or Protestant, ours or theirs, afraid or not afraid, literary or non-literary, read or heard. When that happens, Burns says, a new motto emerges: “Attempts and repeated attempts, that’s the way to do it.” Break the tradition, and listen to the book you always meant to read.

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