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Some Plato or Nietzsche for this week’s commute, sir?

By Nicolas Soames

12 November 2007

Imagine! You are the Naxos AudioBooks sales rep and you turn up to see the Waterstone’s buyer or The White House Bookshop – that delightful establishment in Burnham Market, Norfolk – and you say, ‘Can I interest you in a four-CD set of Ancient Greek Philosophy or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra or The Life and Works of Marcel Proust?’

You can almost hear the buyer thinking, ‘Hmm, I have limited space for audiobooks… shall I stock it with Proust or Plato, or shall I keep it for the next rep. who will offer me Agatha Christie or the new I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue?’

Probably, a no-brainer.

And certainly many of my audiobook colleagues remark how noble it is that we do such worthy things, but surely it doesn’t pay its way!

The answer is that we have been pleasantly surprised at the interest in the more academic areas of our catalogue. We don’t really know why this is, but I put it down largely to the fact that our listeners use the flexibility of the audiobook medium to learn on the move.

One of the great innovations of the twentieth century was the opportunity for adult learning – in the UK, it was provided by the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and the many adult courses run by universities, which broadened with the Open University and the concept of the University of the Third Age.

People genuinely want to broaden their cultural base, whether it is with philosophy or classical music, literature and/or the other arts. And now there is no such thing as ‘It is too late, I suppose’.

At Naxos AudioBooks we try to play our part also by providing recordings which can introduce topics – such as Philosophy or The Classics (scripts from OUP’s excellent ‘Very Short Introduction’ series); or The History of Classical Music, The History of English Literature and The History of Theatre (our own specially commissioned texts). Increasingly we are providing original source texts – from Plato, Nietzsche, the Buddha. And we present these with explanatory introductions to make them more accessible.

This has been successful partly through finding the right voices and writers for these subjects. Richard Fawkes (who wrote the History scripts on classical music, opera and the musical) and David Timson (author of The History of Theatre), for example, love their subjects and clearly convey their knowledge and passions.

Arguably, it is more difficult with Western classical philosophy, or Buddhism… but not so for the brothers Hugh and Tom Griffith, who are setting out the Greeks for us. They are academically sound Oxford classicists with a whimsical eye for concept and phrase, and the territory is divided quite naturally between them: it is Plato for Tom (his new translations of Symposium, etc., are widely admired) and Aristotle (coming in February 2008) for Hugh.

Over one Oxford Sunday lunch (we discussed life and projects from midday to 6 p.m., and pondered moving straight on to supper), I vaguely recall (there were a few bottles) trying to summarise the fraternal differences which led one to Plato and the other to Aristotle… until I was told in no uncertain terms, ‘Whoa, Tonto!’

The complete Loeb Classical Library may adorn their shelves, but there isn’t a spec of dust on it – or on them.

The same goes for Ian Johnston. A British-born Canadian retired lecturer, he has a remarkable website on which he has posted his excellent new translations of Greek and German texts, including those of Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Kafka. Also available are the scripts of interesting talks he has given to his students, introducing a range of subjects. An extremely generous man, he believes profoundly that our past so informs and enriches our present that philosophy and art should be more widely available.

Enthusiasm marks these men, as well as a deeply rooted love for their subjects and conviction of their relevance for today. Tom Griffith demonstrates that the measured wisdom of Socrates as he approaches his death (The Trial and Death of Socrates) is unforgettable; Hugh Griffith highlights the expected thread of dry humour in Diogenes, one of the earliest Greek philosophers, in Ancient Greek Philosophy; the glorious wit and insight of Mozart is persuasively transmitted by Jeremy Siepmann in The Life and Works of Mozart (part of his exceptional audiobook series on great composers); and in The History of Theatre David Timson draws the whole picture, from Sophocles through the remarkable virtuosity of Shakespeare to the present day.

What journeys! What discoveries! So, back we go to our opening image: The Naxos AudioBooks Sales Representative and The Book Buyer. It sounds like the title for one of Aesop’s fables, and in a way it is.

‘Can I interest you in our new recording introducing the works of Aristotle, or perhaps The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path?… Would you like to think about it?’

Nicolas Soames

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