On Saturday morning my six-year-old son returned from a visit to the local library excitedly clutching the audio CD version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
While the timing of this surprised me - I am currently reading him Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I thought we were enjoying a father/son bonding thing - the fact that he wanted them did not.
For the last couple of years he has listened to the tapes of the first five Potter books relentlessly. And, extraordinarily, entirely randomly. He simply puts in whichever tape is close to hand. So one moment you are hearing Stephen Fry describing Harry's first visit to Diagon Alley, the next moment Cedric Diggory's copping it in the graveyard.
And he is completely mesmerised by them, and will sit for hour after hour listening, randomly, to Fry and Harry. If he has a grasp of the chronology of HP - and actually it is unsurprisngly shaky - it is because he has seen the five movies released so far or recalls it from the books I have read him. But his command of the detail is extraordinary. He peppers every other conversation with some obscure fact and can answer most of the questions I throw at him.
Since he's been knee high, Paddy has loved being read to and bedtimes became a battle of wills: "One more story. Just one more. Pleeeeaaasssse..." Still now he will listen to more or less anything, from baby stories read to his little sister right up to the Today programme. Although he is becoming more discerning, justifying his decision to borrow the Potter tapes with the mumbled explanation: "They're better." At least he had the decency to look embarrassed.
We have fed his love of audio, regularly hiring tapes and CDs from the library and always listening to stories on car journeys. We have a couple of Young Bond CDs. For Christmas we bought him a box set of CDs of the first six Alex Rider novels, which he likes also, although not as much as Potter/Fry.
I enjoy them also. I started listening to audio regularly after getting a job that required endless hours on the road a few years back. I began by deciding this was the perfect opportunity to "read" all those classics I'd never gotten around to before. What I discovered quite quickly was that the necessity to concentrate occasionally on the road meant drifting out of the books. After rewinding about 30 times in the first two hours of A Tale of Two Cities, because, like a tortured goldfish, I repeatedly discovered I had no idea what was going on, I knew it wasn't going to work.
I needed simpler stuff that could be picked up if the odd page was missed. Crime is perfect for that and I discovered Sue Grafton this way. I listed to a lot of Bernard Cornwell and Robert Crais. But Harry Potter fit the bill perfectly and I quickly found that when reading new books I heard Stephen Fry reading them (so upset though I am that my son should prefer SF to me, I do understand). Still now I listen to them driving and running.
But listening to audio has no impact on my reading. I only listen to books when doing things that make it impossible to read them.
But for Paddy they are the main event. He rushes hime from school and disappears upstairs to listen to Harry Potter or Alex Rider and it is becoming increasigly difficult to get him to "read" - whether it be for homework or for pleasure. Part of this I am sure is pure expediency. He knows it is quicker and easier to listen than it is to read. There is, no doubt, an element of laziness.
But what concerns me is that ultimately he will regard audio not as a convenient alternative to reading but as the main event. Should I be worried about this? Or just pleased that he is interested in stories and story-telling? I guess I worry that he won't learn to enjoy the process of reading, the active experience that it is and that he will view it as an entirely passive process.
However beautifully a story is read, it removes some of the room for reader interpretation. An accent, an intonation, a dramatic pause - they all matter.
With time-pause TV, video-on-demand, Audible downloads, iPods and the like, the media has become immediate, rich and varied. Few of these require the work you have to put in with a book. At the same children seem to be spoon fed so muc of their school work and entertainment, that perhaps books seem just too much like hard work.
There is very little better than opening a good book. I hope Paddy comes to appreciate that.