Book - Insomnia, Audiobooks and English Literature


With The Age of Exodus, the third of the Duncan Forrester mysteries, published TODAY by Titan Books, we were lucky enough to get a guest article by its author Gavin Scott on the soothing sounds of listening to literature...


Insomnia has had an interesting effect on my appreciation of English literature. Unlike many sufferers, I have no difficulty in getting to sleep: my problem comes when I wake in the early hours and my brain begins to turn over as if it’s 9am. The solution, for me, is listening to audiobooks, and that has led to a new take on which authors I really like. Because if an audiobook works I’ll cheerfully listen to it again and again, and if it doesn't I find myself asking hard questions about the writer in question.

J.R.R. Tolkien stands up extremely well, with reservations. His measured, sonorous, almost biblical sounding prose is ideal for soothing the soul. And the early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring (particularly as read by Rob Inglis) are pure delight: the hills and dales and byways of the Shire are the perfect gateway to sleep. Rivendell and the first part of the Ring’s journey south are also deeply satisfying: only when Sam and Frodo begin slogging their way towards Mordor do I begin to skip whole chapters, and stick with Gandalf, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin and the rest of the gang in Rohan and Gondor. But overall Tolkien creates, in Middle Earth a world you want to enter and remain in.

P.G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie novels and stories, especially when read by Jonathan Cecil, are close contenders, not just because they are very funny, but because Wodehouse’s prose take you on a tour through all English literature, as he combines the cadences of the St James Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and the British Foreign Office into a glorious concoction of his own. And Bertie, though everyone regards him as a fool, is in my view one of literature’s most exemplary figures, always striving to assist pals and deserving relatives, avoid hurting the feelings of would-be spouses, and uphold The Code of the Woosters. I can speak from experience when I say that Jeeves and Bertie never stale with repetition: indeed, one’s appreciation of the baroque elegance of Wodehouse’s writing simply grows the more often you encounter it.

Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time also, for me passes the repetition test. His slow-burning jokes, especially those involving the insanely ambitious, unscrupulous, selft-righteous Kenneth Widmerpool, deliver their comic punch even when you know exactly when they're due to arrive. And familiarity allows his extended, elegant paragraphs to be savoured with even greater pleasure.

Something similar can be said of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, where the humour is gentler, but the world of the cathedral and the cathedral close even more seductive. In our youth, when my wife couldn't get to sleep, I used to render her unconscious within minutes by reading her The Warden. Now Simon Vance’s performance on Audiobooks does the same for me. Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs Proudie never cease to delight.

Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series have similar admirably soporific qualities, and are also very funny, especially when read by Robert Ian McKenzie: their gentle, philosophic take on life in one of the world’s most liveable cities is balm to my soul. In my mind’s geography, McCall Smith’s Edinburgh sits alongside Trollope’s Barchester and not far from Tolkien’s Shire.

John Buchan also knew how to create worlds into which the imagination could enter, though these days one has to make an effort to avoid his Clubman’s prejudices to be able to enjoy it. But the man could write, and if you discard some of his xenophobic baggage along the way, he can make you feel as if you are there, in the midst of the Scottish highlands (John McNab), or on a haunted Greek island (The Dancing Floor) or slipping through the dangerous alleys of Istanbul (Greenmantle) alongside heroes like Richard Hannay, Sir Edward Leithen, or the retired Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn. The Island of Sheep is one of my particular favourites - a late entry in the saga that began with The Thirty Nine Steps - which spirits the willing reader to the austere beauties of a Norwegian ocean redoubt.

But my most reliable standby when sleep refuses to come to me is Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, where repeated listenings (particularly to Michael Hordern’s performance) reveal passages of such extraordinary beauty that the mind simply floats downriver with him, looking up at the sky. Everyone remembers Mole’s escape from whitewashing at the beginning of the book, and Mr Toad’s wild adventures: but for deep peace go to chapters like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Wayfarers All, where a Seafaring Rat tells the Water Rat of the delights of stowing away aboard a tramp steamer out of Constantinople, and exploring the Greek islands. “Those were golden days and balmy nights … sleeping in some cool temple or ruined cistern during the heat of the day, feasting and song after sundown under great stars set in a velvet sky.” This is prose that takes me not just to sleep – but into a world that only great literature can create.

Many thanks to Gavin Scott and Titan Books for a fascinating article. Gavin Scott's book, The Age of Exodus is published today and you can find it and the other two books in the series on Amazon