Tuesday, 3 September 2013


Stories predate books by many thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands I suspect. Written language evolved from spoken language. I don't think it could have really happened the other way around. Before we got around to inventing alphabets and stuff, we had an oral tradition. It was all we had to pass on the wisdom of the past to those that needed the lessons it taught in the present.

Now, I don't know about you, but if someone tells me not to do something, I get a strong urge to go and do it. As a means of passing on information or advice, telling bald facts are not necessarily the best way of going about it. I don't suppose people were that different back then either.

So what better way to keep your children out of the woods? Tell them not to go in the woods? Or tell them some tale that scares the living shit out of them? Most of the fairy tales we're familiar with now were folk tales that were cleaned up by Charles Perrault 400 years or so ago. Those precursors were worse. Far worse.

So both the making of and the listening to of stories is one of the things that makes us humans what we are. If dolphins or chimps do it, we're not in on it. I'd also add that perhaps listening to stories is a little more natural than reading them. We're visual creatures. Our upright posture and binocular vision have been a massively important part of our survival and rise as a species. We couldn't watch out for lions and read a book at the same time. But we could watch for lions and listen to someone telling a story, just as today we can drive while listening to the radio, but we can't drive and read a book. Well, not with the same ease anyway.

Just as at one time, several millenia ago, we found methods of converting that same information into sequences of visual symbols, in the last century or so, we found the means to store audible information, as audble information. From wax disks to ipods; Mary had a little lamb to Gangnam.

The first stories I took in were taken in through my ears. The words came from my Mum's mouth. She read them from the pages of a book. Then, when I learned how to decode the symbols myself, I was able to take the visual information on the pages and convert them into first vocalised then subvocalised sound.

That's what you do when you read, isn't it? The words you read form silent sound shapes in your mind. As you're reading these lines, there's a voice somewhere inside you. Perhaps with a slight scouse accent.

Although I could now read the tales for myself, it was always nice to have someone do it for me. Whether it was Bernard Cribbins on Jackanory, or Mrs Veats in Junior School.  I also devoured children's literature voraciously. After going to bed, I would read. After a while, one or the other of my parents would proclaim lights out, and I would comply until they went back downstairs, at which point I would switch it back on and carry on reading. My dad would open the curtains downstairs and see the light, and would come and take the bulb out. So then I would continue by torchlight, as the theme music to the news at ten wafted up the stairs.

The first audiobook I ever bought was a 12 inch circle of vinyl containing "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe." I bought it from a record shop in Chester, second hand, and would have been in my early to mid teens. Mainly though, in my late teens and early twenties, I read.

Nowadays, I have little time to read, but I spend a lot of time travelling around in the car. Not the sort of situation where I could pull out a novel and read a few paragraphs. I suspect that a snatched sentence taken in at a red traffic light or level crossing would be deeply unsatisfying.

So thank goodness for ears! The soundtrack to my journeys is as likely to be Bill Bryson as The Beatles. Iain Banks rather than Ian McNabb. Since the information is already in audible form, I don't need to decode it, and can concentrate on the story, while simultaneously dealing with the primarily visual task of driving.


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