My earliest memory is of my mother reading me a book. She was heavily pregnant, and I was leaning on her bump listening, when the baby kicked me. That was the first time I interacted with Adam, who is now a London DJ and who has, since that first kick, been a constant in my life.
Being read a story is comforting beyond anything. These days I read to my two younger children before they go to bed, even though they are the grand old ages of eight and eleven. We have been through a lot of Noel Streatfeild, with Thursday’s Child voted into the top spot. We have been through the Harry Potter series more than once (also more than twice). We’ve had Artemis Fowl, Charlotte Sometimes, Tom’s Midnight Garden: we read whatever comes to hand and looks interesting, much of it from the heap of my old books that surfaced recently.
While I certainly wouldn’t have ever admitted to my friends that I still had a bedtime story at the age of eight, it is not considered remotely babyish any more, because people of all ages listen to stories whenever they can. When my daughter Lottie had a friend for a sleepover recently, I found myself reading the whole of Neil Gaiman’s and Chris Riddell’s The Sleeper and the Spindle to the girls as they lay in their beds, rapt. I lost my voice, but they were relentless about the fact that I needed to get to the end, and they were, of course, right.
The thing is, though, that these days you don’t actually need a personal reading slave on hand. Not so long ago, audio books were a niche item. I remember buying Rosamund Pilcher casettes for my grandmother when listening was easier for her than reading. I bought a tape of Macbeth when I was revising it for GCSE. Years later, I got the children a box set of Stephen Fry reading the first Harry Potter book, though the CDs got scratched and out of order.
It all changed with MP3 players. While traditional publishing has been though turbulent times, audiobook sales have boomed. Audible, which is Amazon’s audio arm, doesn’t even sell CDs, but only retails digital downloads which are accessible to anyone with a smartphone. My daughter now listens to audiobooks on my phone every night as she falls asleep, and this has made her extremely happy, though Audible’s algorithms now assume that I’m only ever going to be interested in the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson.
For a writer, the existence of audiobooks is a wonderful thing. Last summer I listened to four different actresses reading the same section of Backpack, my first novel, which was going to be recorded as an audiobook 13 years after its publication (the extract was a little bit sweary, which was entertaining). Audible were using Backpack to recruit someone new as a narrator, and these were the four finalists. I listened to each of them, and two stood out. The job was given to one of them, Emma Fenney, who I met in the recording studio one hot August afternoon. I had never thought, before talking to Emma, that Backpack, with its setting in multiple Asian locations, is filled with challenging accents: she had been on YouTube working out things like the intricacies of Lao-accented English. I found myself almost apologising to her.
The fact is that, no matter what happens in the world of publishing, people will always want books. Whether they read them on paper, or on screens, or listen to someone else doing the reading for them, humans of all ages want to be told a story. And that is an immensely cheering thing.