There is no surer recipe for staleness than endlessly analysing examination texts. Listening to audio versions can be a marvellously invigorating antidote - and mercifully, many of the current set books are available in this form.
Dickens said of Nicholas Nickleby, that if he had put into it the full truth about the treatment of children in Yorkshire schools, it would not have been believed - or would at least have given great offence to prudish Victorian ears. Yet his novel worked like a classic piece of exposure-journalism, and caused most of those sadistic places to be closed. Alex Jennings reads Cover to Cover's luxuriously unabridged version of the novel (24 cassettes Pounds 69.99) so superbly that his performance becomes an enrichment of the prose. He is hilarious in the comic roles, ardent as Nicholas, subtly pathetic as Smike, and sinister when required.
Fellow RSC-member Nathaniel Parker does a comparable job on David Copperfield (4 cassettes Pounds 9.99 Penguin), the semi-autobiographical novel in which Dickens draws on the darkness of his childhood to denounce the evils of poverty. Parker gives a reading which, with its unforgettable characters, wild comedy, and sheer suspense, is pure delight.
Eleanor Bron, meanwhile, proves a superlative reader in Penguin's sympathetic abridgment of Tess of the D'Urbervilles (4 cassettes Pounds 9.99). She can do a convincing masculine voice, but she brings out all Tess's tender emotions - love for Angel and pitiful anguish as her troubles mount and she faces her malign destiny.
Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's satiric parody of the Gothic romances popular in her day, and it requires a special kind of lightness in tone. Jill Balcon's reading for Penguin (2 cassettes Pounds 7.99) is elegant but uninspired: her deep voice does not convince as silly young Catherine, and Henry sounds a dull prig. Far better to get the Naxos version (2 cassettes Pounds 5.99), in which Juliet Stevenson invests Catherine with eager impetuosity, and gives Henry an amused and affectionately teasing manner.
Over in Bront -land, audio versions continue to proliferate, but don't all hit the mark. Jane Eyre is Charlotte Bront 's daydream. In life, Charlotte loved and lost: in art, Jane's love is requited, and her spirit appreciated. The Naxos version read by Emma Fielding (3 cassettes Pounds 7.49) cuts out the melodrama, the thunderstorms real and symbolic, and the irruption of the paranormal; it presents instead a staider, more credible story, shorn of the original's lurid excitement. This may be more acceptable to modern ears, but it does traduce a text in which Byronic Romanticism plays an essential role as a healing fantasy. Penguin's abridgment (2 cassettes Pounds 7.99) is shorter but more sensitive, and gives a better feeling of the novel's melodramatic pulse. Juliet Stevenson is once again the reader, doing a superb job.
John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men was recently made into a film. Gary Sinise both directed and played the part of George, the caring protector of simple-minded Lennie. Sinise is the perfect choice as reader for Penguin's unabridged version (2 cassettes Pounds 7.99), doing full justice to George's exasperation as he tries to save the blundering Lennie from the consequences of his actions. And he brings out the pathos in Steinbeck's world, where the bountifulness of nature contrasts with the manual labourers' grinding poverty.
Back home, Timothy West gives an unimprovable reading of Animal Farm (2 cassettes Pounds 7.99 Penguin), bringing out all Orwell's layers of meaning. Animal rights? Right of man? Communism the panacea? Only a non-herd animal like the cat is immune from creeping political corruption.