In the Details


Our Daily Correspondent


Milton’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

Some books are made to be read aloud—or, at least, they take on different dimensions when they’re heard or performed. The texts that make for great audiobooks are sometimes the ones you’d expect: Ulysses or Moby-Dick or just about anything by Wodehouse. Books whose poetry and humor are thrown into relief by a gifted voice actor.

Other times, a title will take you by surprise. My brother has always been a great book-listener, and over the years I’ve given him any number of audiobooks. I won’t say which were disappointing, but it was fun to hear how well Herzog took to the treatment, or The Savage Detectives. Leo McKern reads Rumpole far better than your head ever will. (And listening is, in my opinion, the only way to approach The Fountainhead.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Paradise Lost. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun—but it’s riveting, and I’m not just saying that because today is Milton’s birthday. (He doesn’t care. Depending upon your system of belief he’s either dead or has better things to think about.) Like a lot of people, I’d read Paradise Lost in college—or maybe studied is the better word—and I’d recognized its importance as a literary and philosophical work and a cultural artifact. But it wasn’t until listening to the nine-hour Nadia May version that I really appreciated the poem.

It’s a great luxury to put yourself in the hands of a talented reader, to give yourself over totally to the pleasures of language. As anyone who’s ever both seen and read a play knows, the experience is completely different, and differently rich. It’s a special treat to do this with a piece that one has only approached intellectually, especially if one tends to overthink things. This is one of the few kinds of true relaxation that technology has brought us.

This may be a facile point, but it’s important to remember that Milton was blind, meaning that his work was always read aloud: dictated to his various scribes, and then presumably read back to him. Perhaps this goes some ways toward explaining its particular spoken music. You can read ad infinitum about Milton’s disillusionment and despair, his personal travails and political disappointments. But to hear that passion expressed is something else entirely. Some recorded versions cast two readers, so that the character of Satan is distinct. I imagine this is great, but not absolutely necessary: the conflict is vivid as written.

If you can manage it, read the lines aloud to yourself. People might look at you like you’re crazy, but then, no one said the struggle between good and evil was easy. 

But first whom shall we send
In search of this new world, whom shall we find
Sufficient? Who shall tempt, with wand’ring feet
The dark unbottomed infinite abyss
And through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aery flight
Upborne with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt, ere he arrive
The happy isle?