Listening as Reading

Some more about audiobooks today.

I still remember my shock and dismay a couple of years ago when I clicked on to the New York Times book page and found an advertisement of much a younger, more handsome and vaguely Mediterranean-looking young man who oozed sex appeal as he looked out at me from the screen with headphones on his ears.

“Why Read?” asked the caption.

Surely this was the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it, to say nothing of being a poor marketing strategy for a newspaper industry increasingly casting about in vain for new readers.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that audiobooks have developed a generally sexy and sophisticated cache for literary types that other shorthand ways to literature typically lack. As an English professor, I’ve been intrigued lately that a number of colleagues around and about have told me they listen to audiobooks to “keep up on their reading.” To some degree I’ve always imagined this as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I never read the book, but I watched the movie,” which has itself been about on a par with reading Sparknotes.

However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, another colleague recently took issue with my general despairing sense that the reading of literature, at least, is on the decline, no matter the degree to which students may be now reading interactively on the web. “Yes,” she said, “but what about audiobooks?” She went on to cite the growth in sales over the past few years as evidence that interest in literature may not be waning after all.

My immediate response is a little bit like that of Scott Esposito over at Conversational reading. In a post a couple of years ago Scott responded to an advocate of audiobooks with the following:

Sorry Jim, but when you listen to a book on your iPod, you are no more reading that book than you are reading a baseball game when you listened to Vin Scully do play-by-play for the Dodgers.

It gets worse:

[Quoting Jim] But audio books, once seen as a kind of oral CliffsNotes for reading lightweights, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else.

Well, if you’re doing something else then you’re not really reading, now are you? Listen Jim, and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?

It’s not reading. It’s pretending that you give a damn about books when you really care so little about them that you’ll try to process them at the same time you’re scraping Pookie’s dog craps up off the sidewalk.

I have to grin because Scott is usually so much more polite. Nevertheless, I cite Scott at length because viscerally, in the deepest reaches of my id, I am completely with him and he said it better than I could anyway.

However, it’s worth pausing over the question of audiobooks a little further. I don’t agree with one of Scott’s respondents over at if:book, who describes listening to audiobooks as a kind of reading. But it is an experience related to reading, and so it’s probably worth parsing what kind of experience audiobooks actually provide and how that experience fits in with our understanding of what reading really is.

As I’ve said a couple of times, I think we lose sight of distinctions by having only one word, “reading,” that covers a host of activities. I don’t buy the notion that listening can be understood as the same activity as reading, though the if:book blog rightly points out the significance of audiobooks to the visually impaired. Indeed, one of my own colleagues has a visual disability and relies on audiobooks and other audio versions of printed texts to do his work. Even beyond these understandable exceptions, however, Scott’s definition of reading above privileges a particular model of deep reading that, in actual fact, is relatively recent in book history.

Indeed, going back to the beginnings of writing and reading, what we find is that very few people read books at all. Most people listened to books/scrolls/papyri being read. TheChrist reading in the synagogue temple reader and the town crier are the original of audiobooks and podcasts. In ancient Palestine, for instance, it’s estimated that in even so bibliocentric a culture as that of the Jewish people only 5 to 15% of the population could read at all, and the reading that went on often did not occur in deep intensive reading like that which Scott and I imagine when we think about what reading really is. Instead, much of the experience of reading was through ritual occasions in which scriptures would be read aloud as a part of worship. This is why biblical writers persistently call on people to “Hear the Word.” This model of reading persists in Jewish and Christian worship today, even when large numbers of the religious population are thoroughly literate. See Issachar Ryback’s “In Shul” for an interesting image from the history of Judaism.

Indeed, in the history of writing and reading, listening to reading is more the norm than not if we merely count passing centuries. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Reformation that the model for receiving texts became predominantly focused on the individuals intense and silent engagement with the written word of the book. In this sense, we might say that the Hebrews of antiquity weren’t bibliocentric so much as logocentric—word-centered but not necessarily book-centered.

Along these lines, the model of intense engagement—what scholars of book history call “intensive reading”—is only one historical model of how reading should occur. Many scholars in the early modern period used “book wheels” in order to have several books open in front book wheelof them at the same time. This is not exactly the same thing as multi-tasking that Scott abhors in his post, and it’s not exactly internet hypertexting, but it is clearly not the singular absorption in a text that we’ve come to associate with the word “reading.” “Reading” is not just the all-encompassing absorption that I’ve come to treasure and long for in great novels and poems, or even in great and well-written arguments. Indeed, I judge books by whether they can provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless, “Reading” is many things.

But to recognize this is not exactly the same thing as saying “so what” to the slow ascendancy of audiobooks, and the sense that books, if they are to be read at all, will be read as part of a great multi-tasking universe that we now must live in. Instead, I think we need to ask what good things have been gained by the forms of intensive reading that Scott and I and others in the cult of book lovers have come to affirm as the highest form of reading. What is lost or missing if a person or a culture becomes incapable of participating in this kind of reading.

By the same token, we should ask what kinds of things are gained by audiobooks as a form of experience, even if I don’t want to call it a form of reading. I’ve spent some time recently browsing around, which I’ll probably blog about more extensively in a future post. It’s fair to say that a lot of it turns absolutely wonderful literature into mush, the equivalent of listening to your eight-year-old niece play Beethoven on the violin. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some few of the readers on that service bring poetry alive for me in a way quite different than absorption in silence with the printed page. As I suggested the other day, I found Justin Brett’s renditions of Jabberwocky and Dover Beach, poems I mostly skim over when finding them in a book or on the web, absolutely thrilling, and I wanted to listen to everything I could possibly find that he had read.

This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading.

This raises necessary questions about the relationship between reader and listener. Could we tolerate a culture in which, like the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, reading is for the elite few while the rest of us listen or try to listen. At the mercy and good will of the literate elite—to say nothing of their abilities and deficiencies as oral interpreters of the works at hand.

More later

12 thoughts on “Listening as Reading

  1. Albert

    Hi ! I think listening is ok as long as the speaker´s voice is expressive enough, otherwise, I would rather read.

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Yes, I probably shouldn’t come across as saying there’s something WRONG with listening. I don’t quite take that much umbrage at books on tape (or cd, or internet). I just think there’s a different activity going on when listening than when reading; I have no evidence, but I think it probably engages different parts of the brain, and requires different kinds of mental and imaginative processing. Still, I like to listen (though in saying this I feel a little like the hero of Kozinski’s Being There; “I like to watch.”)

  3. hugh

    so just a couple of additions/comments. in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.

    further, many listeners to audio books listen in circumstances when they could not be reading: while walking, snowshoeing, driving, etc.. many knitters seem to be read audiobook addicts – they listen while they knit, since they can’t manipulate needles & books at the same time. in this way the question to ask about audio books is not how they compare to reading a text, but rather how they compare other kinds of things one might be listening to instead in those circumstances: silence, brittney spears, NPR or rush limbaugh, etc. i’d contend that listening to moby dick on your drive to work, for instance, is “better” than, say, listening to the vast majority of talk radio.

    your point about different parts of the brain are, I believe, correct – and when I listen to audio books (which is not that often) it is a totally different experience than reading the text. usually less intimate, less rich, less nuanced, but (sometimes) valuable nonetheless. sometimes it’s extraordinary. and sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other. on the other hand, walking around the city with whitman going in one ear and out the other is actually a wonderful kind of experience, but it’s definitely nothing like reading the text.

    as for librivox itself, i’d say two things:
    -we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.
    -and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:

    [though it appears your interest is poerty – i don’t think many of those recommendations are poetry … which brings up another relevant point: we use poetry in part as a way to help people get acquainted with recording, so often poems are the first things people read for us … which means that on balance, our poetry consistency is probably more spotty than in the rest of the collection]

    i guess that’s it! …

  4. hugh

    and maybe i will just add another point, that flows from where our focus has always been at librivox: the readers. we have, generally, been less concerned with the “listener,” and our real support is for the readers who make LibriVox recordings. So, here you have a project where several thousand people have done the arduous work of not just reading a text, but reading, recording, getting right, and editing an audio version of a text. which I assure you, when done with proper attention (which is not always the case, I can say from experience), is a form of deep connection with a text that “mere” reading cannot provide.

    so maybe that is a challenge to you: why not find a good shortish (public domain) text that is meaningful to you, and record it for LibriVox (or yourself). see what that experience is like, how richly you might understand the text and the language in ways you never had before. it’s happened to me many times.

    to me, as a lover of literature, that side of LibriVox is much more interesting than the high school student who listens to a one of out books instead of reading the text.

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  8. Monda

    There is a difference between hearing and listening, just as there is a difference between skimming and deep reading. All of them have to do with types of literacy.

    Anyone who teaches writing knows that students who read – REALLY read – are better writers. The visual understanding of sentence structures and word juxtaposition is impossible to absorb just by listening. IF what we want is to be told a story, the audiobook is fine entertainment. If we want to *experience* story, we need to pick up a book and read it.

    I’m trying to imagine Absalom, Absalom on audiotape. I just can’t.

  9. Robert Scott

    [ This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading. ]

    You should have found at the top of the catalog page a link to the version of the text used for the reading …. The Audio is best used in tandom with the text ( though I see no problem with and quite enjoy listening simply for the sake of listening ( listening comprehension I would argue is a bit more needed in the daily experience than is reading comprehension )

    I had a geometry teacher in high school who encouraged her students to read aloud when studying …. her theory was that the more of ones senses that were involved in the learning process the better the learning process became ( thank you Mrs Burke ) … I am 40 yrs old now and have since this class read to myself aloud ( some 27 yrs now …. whenever possible ) and now I read Public Domain Texts into Audio Files for my own project . If others choose only to listen to the Audio files at least they have experienced the ideas and concepts put forth by the original author and in this experience their lives become more rich ….

    I wonder if listeners are as confused as you may think they are and feel as though they have “read” the book …. they may use “read” when they mean “experienced” the material.

    I have been self employed for most of my adult life and In dealing with training employees I can tell you with absolute certainness that some people do not do well with written instructions. Some need to be told and others need to be shown …. the key here is knowing the method of information delivery which best suits the receiver …. ( the mistake made most often is to assume my way is the way … instead of understanding my way is “a” way and there Are other ways …. )

    Now my question for you would be if you are reading intimately as you have indicated why are you not reading aloud for others that they may have the Experience of your intimacy with the material …. ?

    [ What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). ]

    Literature is and always will be a product of the “Mind” ….
    The thing on paper is merely a graphic representation of both thoughts and the process of thinking … that being said why would a sound be of any less value than a symbol ??

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  11. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Robert and Monda, thanks for your comments. As for the relative value of listening and reading, I’d prefer not to choose, but I am worried about whether democracies can function effectively without effective critical reading and sufficient reading comprehension. Our abilities to embrace and protect the freedoms provided us through laws and constitutions depend in the first instance on our ability to read, understand, critique, and argue about their instantiation in written form. This is, of course, a different question than reading or listening to literature, but it’s not a completely different question.

  12. Robert Scott

    Peter …..

    As to #11 I agree with you 100% ( I am currently recording John Deweys Democracy and Education )

    This is a great point but the inability of the public to read the law ( actually read the law ) has been a real issue since the first days of America and a big point of critique for Lysander Spooner ( see Spooners Natural Law ) an issue I would probably not be aware of had I not read literature revolving around this issue …. literature I read specifically to help a friend with an Audio project he was doing …. I guess I am in a bit of a unique spot as I am reading text to Audio so I get the best of both worlds ….

    I am glad to see you have called this issue into the spotlight !!
    For someone like myself who is reading text to audio what would you recommend I do to encourage listeners to get a copy of the literature and read it for themselves ( BTW we provide text for free for all the Audio files we distribute )


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