The NAB Blog

Learning on the Road

By Nicolas Soames

1 June 2007

For 30 years, I have practised judo – an ideal active counter-balance to the sedentary nature of much of my life. A few years after I began, I knew that I would go out to train in Japan, the home of judo, and I therefore felt obliged to develop at least a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese out of courtesy to my hosts.

So, like so many people, I turned to language tapes (pre-CD days…). Linguaphone dominated the market at the time, so Linguaphone tapes it was. As I travelled daily to my judo club in London, the sound of ‘konnichiwa’ and ‘watashi no namae wa’ blared in my car, and I gradually became familiar with the sound of the language. I didn’t realise that the set I bought was a very old publication, with antiquated Japanese. I should have guessed when one of the first phrases I learned was ‘the wind soughing through the pine trees’ and I was ordered to struggle with highly honorific ways of greeting the teacher. After I arrived, my very formal phraseology, full of ‘ye’ and ‘thine’ and my knowledge of parts of temple buildings, were an endless source of amusement to my fellow judo students.

But it did teach me how to use that dead time in the car: rather than whiling away the hours listening to the radio, I could learn.

Language courses are among the top sellers in audiobooks, as any scan of Amazon will show. And in the Far East, Naxos AudioBooks is proving popular with Chinese, Japanese and Koreans: they take out subscriptions to the Naxos Spoken Word Library where they can not only listen (online) to the classics, but improve their English by following the onscreen texts. Sherlock Holmes is popular, of course, but, amazingly, so are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. They are for the more advanced students who, I think, are delighted to practice their English AND enjoy what they are reading at the same time.

But language courses are not the only learning opportunities. What we colloquially call classic literature is a huge treasure-trove of words from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century, both fiction and non-fiction. It is difficult to come to terms with it while at the same time keeping up with one’s own contemporary culture. This is especially true when it comes to the Greek and Roman classics. A vast body of texts remains from those early centuries – a glance at the old Loeb library shows this clearly – and yet we feel we should get to grips with the main works because they form the foundation of Western culture. So many references in the works of succeeding centuries, right up to those of the present day, refer back to the time of Athens, Sparta and Rome, and to understand them we need a basic grounding in the plays of Sophocles, the philosophy of Plato, the poetry of Homer and Virgil. We need to know exactly what happened when Achilles met Hector, when Odysseus met Polyphemus, and when Oedipus met that rather belligerent old man at the crossroads.

Since it began, Naxos AudioBooks has worked to provide a classical platform, a springboard where listeners can acquaint themselves with these legendary figures and their meaningful encounters. And I hope that, over the years, this familiarisation has proved to be a joy, not a chore, because most of the great works are remarkably accessible and direct, not distant and complex as one may think.

This month we release two such works. I am particularly pleased with the unabridged recordings of The Iliad (issued a few months ago) and now The Odyssey, both in new translations by Ian Johnston – a delightfully down-to-earth English-born university teacher who has made his home in Canada. We first recorded these works in the eighteenth-century translation by the English poet William Cowper and released them in abridged form. They are elegant and have their own charm. But the Augustan translation is, it must be said, somewhat antiquated. (This can in itself be pleasing sometimes… when Odysseus strips off to start the battle to reclaim his home, Cowper’s translation remarks on his strong physique and his powerful ‘thews’ – not a commonplace word now, but one I have adopted).

These abridgements were read by Anton Lesser; we turned back to Anton to read the complete Homer in the new Johnston translations, and thrilling it is. I hope you enjoy The Odyssey as much as I did (though I had the privilege of listening to Anton recording it in the small Oxfordshire studio).

Greek Philosophy is, of course, part of the bedrock of Western civilisation, and I felt that though we had recorded Plato’s Republic and Symposium a good introduction would helpful. This is now served by Ancient Greek Philosophy. The giant figures of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle dominate of course, but in their introduction, the brothers Tom and Hugh Griffith have set out to paint a fuller picture, showing where it all came from – the Pre-Socratics – and give us an easy-to-understand overview of the whole subject.

Some of it is really good fun, some of it is fascinating, and there I was travelling at full tilt down the A40, listening to the paraphrases of Diogenes while on the way to Oxford for a celebratory Sunday lunch with the brothers.

We sat down at 12.30 p.m., and rose at 6 p.m., replete with food, wine and the kind of highly entertaining conversation which stems from a classical education worn lightly. Tom is the Diogenes and Plato specialist, while brother Hugh settles more for Aristotle. Not sure what they were fed on as babies – I forgot to ask.

If the truth be told, most of the readers were coming to some of this material for the first time, and so was I… which only goes to prove what I said at the start – that audiobooks is a fine learning medium.

So now you can start with Ancient Greek Philosophy, with each main figure introduced in language we can all understand before salient extracts are presented. Then you will be ready for more extended extracts…

By the time you have worked your way through that, it will be time for the lighter cut and thrust of Herodotus, whose Histories formed the basis of history as a subject. And of course there are also the fascinating biographical accounts by Plutarch – The Greeks and The Romans – which is where we have got so much of our basic information about those times; and finally The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius’s often salacious portrait of some of the worst rulers of the ancient world, recounted with relish by Derek Jacobi.

Who said the classics were dry and dusty? Oh no. They will liven up any jam on the M25.

Nicolas Soames

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