Here are some of my personal favorite activities: hobbies, literature, etc....
I am a big fan of recorded books (often called "books on tape", but which can also come on audio CDs, in MP3 files, and in other formats). I love to read, but sometimes it's just not practical. Audio books are a great way to avoid getting bored while you're driving, washing the dishes, exercising, etc. They have become very popular in English-speaking countries, especially the U.S. I also enjoy audio recordings of plays, stand-up comedy, famous speeches and radio or TV shows.
Some people object to audio books for the same reason that they don't go to movies adapted from books they're read: They say that they have their own ideas of what the characters should look like, sound like, etc., and they don't want to have to endure somebody else's interpretation. This is a pretty reasonable objection in theory, but I personally find that hearing a good interpretation, far from destroying my own ideas, enriches them. Besides, many of the books I listen to are ones I am not going to read. Frequently, too, audio books are read by the authors, whose interpretations must certainly be "valid" enough for the most demanding listener. :-)
There are several good sources of audio books. Most bookstores in America and Britain now stock them on cassette and CD. You can also buy them by mail or on the Internet; besides the usual big Internet bookstores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.), my favorite is Audio Editions. They publish a great free catalog about six times a year.
You can also download or stream audio books from the Internet. There are lots of sources; my two favorite are AudioBooksForFree (older books in MP3 format, with some advertising, but the price is right!) and Audible (up-to-the-minute books and periodicals, in Audible's proprietary format).
The quality of an audio book depends on both content and presentation. An excellent printed book can make a rather poor audio book if it is poorly read or performed. Of course, one can put up with a less-than-great reading if the reader is the author. (I don't consider Kurt Vonnegut or Isaac Asimov, for example, to be great readers, but I am still glad to have recordings of them reading their own works.)
Additionally, some written books do not make good audio books because the nature of their content requires the reader to stop frequently and think, and even to re-read sentences or paragraphs. (For this reason, I find that poetry — because of the density of its content — often makes for surprisingly unsuccessful audio books.)
So the following list is quite different from my favorite books list. Anyway, here are some of my favorite audio books:
Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (original BBC radio broadcasts); also the individual books read by the author. A wild and crazy romp through an uncaring universe.
Alan Bennett, Talking Heads. Monologues, beautifully written and performed by various British actors. Also available on video.
Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking. One of the funniest books I've read or heard.
John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Beautiful full-cast performances by the BBC. Le Carré himself is an excellent reader of his own work — check out his Our Game.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English). Everybody should hear this in the original (perhaps while reading a modern translation). English before the Great Vowel Shift was a splendidly vigorous language. I wish we still spoke like that....
Winston Churchill, speeches (especially during World War II). What a voice! What a mind!
John Cleese & Connie Booth, Fawlty Towers (British TV series). The first time I saw one of these shows, I found myself very agitated, almost upset — Cleese's performances as the rather unstable Basil Fawlty are that good. (Also available on video.)
Richard Curtis & Ben Elton, The Black Adder (British TV series). Historical comedy, in four periods of English history. The second one (Georgian England) is my favorite. (Also available on video.)
Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse (TV series). Wonderful performances. (Also available on video, I think.)
The Firesign Theatre, "Everything You Know is Wrong"; "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?"; "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers"; and "Waiting for the Electrician (or Someone Like Him". This group of four performers, most active in the 1970s, defined my sense of humor for several years. Some of their stuff is quite bad, but these four LPs were great. I have them pretty much memorized....
James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, written AND READ by the author (whose real name was Alf Wight). Most of the audio versions of the Herriot books are performances by Christopher Timothy, who does an excellent job. But Timothy's southern-English accent is not at all what either "James Herriot" (described as Scottish in the books) would have had or what the real author, northern-English Alf Wight, did have. This 2-cassette set is published by Listen for Pleasure.
Just about anything written by Garrison Keillor. I especially enjoy Stories (a collection of short stories not about Lake Wobegon), Wobegon Boy (a novel) and any of his Lake Wobegon monologues from the radio show Prairie Home Companion. (However, Keillor's reading of his book Lake Wobegon Days, recorded for BBC Radio 4, is a little boring — he sounds almost depressed. He is more animated before a live audience.)
Anything in Esperanto read by Ivo Lapenna, who had the best Esperanto accent I've ever heard.
Elvira Lindo, Manolito Gafotas and Pobre Manolito (in Spanish). Very funny stuff about modern life as viewed by a lower-middle-class boy from the outskirts of Madrid. And as it's written for kids, it's easy to understand if you speak Spanish even fairly well. Read by the author, who does a convincing — but not irritating — imitation of a young boy's voice. Manolito has a web page.
Tom & Ray Magliozzi, Car Talk. A very funny radio show on National Public Radio (U.S.). The weekly show can also be heard on the Internet at http://cartalk.cars.com/, where you can also order "Best of..." compilations and some archived shows on cassette or CD. (Full archives are available at Audible.com.) My favorite compilation is The Second Best of Car Talk.
Monty Python recordings (also available on video).
John Mortimer's Rumpole books, especially those read by Leo McKern, who also played Rumpole on the TV series.
Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, especially as read by Derek Jacobi. Medieval mysteries. The TV productions (available on video) also star Jacobi as the title character and are beautifully done.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). I have an old LP of this read in French (by whom I don't know), and I love it. The French have cultivated the art of the spoken word almost as much as the British.
Peter Schickele, P. D. Q. Bach recordings. Schickele, originally a musicologist (I think), invented a fictional son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and has made a career out of performing compositions supposedly by him. Very funny stuff, both for musicians and non-musicians. The group Les Luthiers does very similar stuff in Spanish.
Robin Skynner and John Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them. Originally a book in question-and-answer format by John Cleese and his psychiatrist, this audio version makes many good points (though it is of necessity much abridged) and is funny besides, owing to the scenes from plays and TV shows included to illustrate the authors' points about family psychology.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (BBC versions).
P. G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves books, especially the BBC versions. If (as I say below) George Orwell used words like Ravel used notes, Wodehouse uses them like Rossini. Though never too profound, with no really big surprises — you can usually guess who is going to marry whom by about the third chapter — the stories are so perfectly put together that reading them is a joy. And they just beg to be performed as plays or radio dramas.
... Stand-up comedy in general. I especially enjoy George Carlin, though I don't much agree with his world view....
... And just about anything read by Martin Jarvis. A marvelous reader.
As mentioned above, I love to read. Here are a few of my favorite books. For me, a "favorite book" doesn't have to be very profound — indeed, it can be very pleasant, lightweight stuff — but it has to affect me in some permanent way. If it gives me funny dreams, even if I didn't really enjoy the dreams, it probably affected me deeply....
Martin Amis, Time's Arrow. About a man who finds himself living his life backwards. (Another variation on this theme is Rob Grant's Red Dwarf: Backwards.)
Albert Camus, The Stranger.
W. Timothy Gallwey. The Inner Game of Tennis. Very popular among musicians, though it doesn't say a word about music. It is a very practical book about performance, specifically about not letting your mind interfere with your abilities.
Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A virtuoso journey touching many aspects of philosophy, mathematics, aesthetics, and much more.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
J. Rowlings, the Harry Potter Series. For kids, okay, but fantastic.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. The format is comfortable to read, despite the fact that it's full of (useful) notes. Has an excellent introduction before each book.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I have read this one many times, seen the film, heard the audio book ... and it is still always fresh. Besides the clearly important political points and the valuable new concepts like doublethink and Big Brother, the book is a continual delight because of Orwell's fastidious prose. He uses words like Maurice Ravel used notes.
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Sure, the author is preachy and superior, but the points he makes have far outlasted most of the "philosophies" of the 1970s. The first time I read it I was in a daze for some time afterwards.
Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman. For kids, or rather adolescents, but deeper, darker and more disturbing than the Harry Potter books.
Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon. The best popular book on the very serious disease of depression. Though rather long, it is not a difficult read. And it is not at all depressing.... :-)
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
I go to church most every Sunday, and find I get a lot more out of it than I put in. Doesn't sound very Christian, does it? :-) On a practical level, I find that simply going once a week, without necessarily doing anything special, is a great help in avoiding depression and relieving stress. On a spiritual level, I have always believed in a higher power, and I find it comforting to get together with others to affirm this. And on a philosophical and moral level, I find that there was never anybody quite like Jesus. By the way, I do not think that science has replaced religious belief or is incompatible with it.
I try to read the Bible regularly, though I don't get to it as often as I would like. In case you are interested, I mainly use the New Oxford Annotated Bible (a New Revised Standard Version) in English and the Reina-Valera version in Spanish. An excellent source of short daily meditations is a little booklet, Forward Day by Day, published four times a year by Forward Movement Publications (an agency of the American Episcopal Church).
Here is a link to a bunch of photos of my church and its members: Iglesia San Basilio (Seville, Spain)
A hobby of mine is cryptography, that is, the solving of secret codes (actually ciphers) without a key. These puzzles, known as "cryptograms", are quite popular, and simple ones appear in many newspapers and magazines. The more serious cryptogram aficionado will want to know about the American Cryptogram Association, which for many decades has published a great little magazine with excellent cryptographic problems. The magazine comes out bimonthly, and the 100-plus cryptograms in it are plenty of work for 60 days! Very few people can solve them all. For the serious fan of cryptography, I cannot recommend the ACA highly enough.
If you would like to see how a cryptogram is solved, I will include a couple of sample step-by-step solutions in a related page in the future.
I have a real love of the spoken word (as you can see above in the audio book section) and have had the opportunity to live in several countries and learn several languages in situ. Though I don't think I'm particularly talented at picking up new languages, I do work hard and use my musical training to good advantage. At present I speak English (my mother tongue), Spanish, French and German pretty well. I also can speak some Esperanto and read it fairly well. Some years ago I made a heroic effort to learn Basque, but never reached the level where I could hold a conversation.
This last language, which the Basques themselves call Euskara or Euskera, is utterly fascinating to a linguist. It is not closely related to any language on earth, yet it is smack-dab in the middle of Europe. Its word order is more or less the same as that of, say, Spanish ... but mostly backwards. The Basque for "The tall man whom I saw in the tavern yesterday is my friend" runs something like "Yesterday tavern-the-in see-did-I whom man tall-the me-of friend-the is" (more or less — I don't guarantee that this is completely correct. And don't ask me for the Basque version!).
My favorite languages to listen to, from a purely "musical" point of view, are: French, German, and Scottish or Irish English. (Italian leaves me strangely unmoved.) And I am a sucker for women with beautiful voices....