Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading and Listening

I just finished listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook. This was, somehow, an odd experience, because it's a book that I've read in print perhaps a dozen times over the years but never listened to as an audiobook before. (I did, however, used to listen to the BBC radio dramatization of LotR constantly as a child.)

I've known people who consider listening to an audiobook as somehow "cheating", as not being real reading. I certainly can't come to that, in that some of the most formative reads of my life were books that I heard my father read aloud when I was a child. However, listening to a book does feel a bit different than reading one.

For one thing, even listening along in a car, there's a sense of not being utterly alone with the book. Some website I was on the other day was advertising the audiobook of 50 Shades of Grey, and I thought: How could you possibly want to listen to a porn book? You'd feel like someone was right there with you all the time.

I suppose listening also takes away a certain kind of focus and difficulty which can, at times, accompany reading. When I'm commuting and listening to a book, I'm hardly going to set it aside and pick up another. I only have the one book loaded on my iPhone at a time, and so I tend to always finish. If a book might not be totally involving in print, I can still get through it on audio because I have nothing else to do. By the same token, I don't know if I pay quite as much attention when listening rather than reading, though I try to. This is why, as a parent and educator, it annoys me a bit when the kids insist that they'd rather listen to a book I like on audiobook than read it themselves. Although I give myself full credit for "reading" a book that I listen to, I worry that if they only want to listen to a book that they aren't sufficiently developing their reading skills.

How would you relate the experiences of reading and listening to a book? Do you let your kids listen to books or do you insist on them reading them on paper?


Jenny said...

I don't think listening to an audiobook is the same experience as reading it. When listening you are limited in your ability to stop and reflect over a line a few times. It is easy to zone out and not really listen and then wonder what you missed, especially if something exciting happens in the traffic around you. You can't really flip back to reread something that is now obviously more relevant. There are no maps to look at and study.

Now those are negatives to listening, but there are also positives. I have always been more of an aural learner so to have someone reading it to me means I absorb more the first time through. One of my oddities is that I tend to have a hard time attaching names to characters. I don't read the name fully. I see the first letter and my eyes skim over the rest. I know which character is speaking or is being described, but when I put the book down, the names escape me and I sound like a fool talking about "that guy who did this." When listening, I actually hear the names and can identify them by name.

"If a book might not be totally involving in print, I can still get through it on audio because I have nothing else to do."

This is the truth. I listened to Elizabeth of York earlier this year and it was about four times as long as it needed to be, packed with filler. I never would have finished it if I were reading it, but since I was listening, it provided some background noise as I thought about other things. If something caught my ear, I'd tune in, but otherwise it was a lot of Charlie Brown's teacher to break the monotony of the drive.

My children know that I listen to books in the car, but I don't think it has occurred to them that they too could listen to books so we haven't crossed that bridge yet.

Darwin said...

That's a really good point about names. I do the same thing when reading in print, I visually recognize names without really "hearing" them, but if I'm recounting what I read to someone else I find I can't remember the names of half the characters. Listening I definitely catch the names -- though in a book with lots of minor characters I don't have the ability to flip back and see, "What, is that the one who...?"

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oh yes, definitely true about names. I do the same thing, skimming without actually hearing them. Especially long foreign names. Tolkien's elven names for sure.

I find listening audiobooks in the car are very different from listening to them in other contexts. I used to listen to them while sewing (pre kids) and because the sewing took so much less of my attention than driving, I missed less. I didn't tend to zone out or get distracted by the tasks of driving and I did absorb more. So for kids who are listening on headphones while doing something with their hands, they might have better focus than an adult driving.

Jenny said...

Here is another frustration with audiobooks: You hear a section that you want to see in print and you have to hope that someone on the Internet thought the same section was interesting too when you search and search, but cannot find it.

Julie D. said...

Both print and audio have their own problems and their own virtues. I'd like to speak about audio's virtues.

I often turn to audio now for books I can't get through in regular reading, but that doesn't mean I am taking in less of the book. Quite the contrary, in fact. I read so fast that I tend to skim a book the first time (just through sheer excitement of getting the story) and then reread for details.

Audio doesn't allow me to skim and it can have the effect of taking me deeper into a story. Also, since I absorb the story differently, it can help me see it from another angle as it were. I'd never have learned to love Dickens without listening to LibriVox's free A Tale of Two Cities. I never could make myself get through the second half of The Lord of the Rings until I listened to the audio. The cadence of Tolkien's language came through so clearly that I still recall the start of surprise I gave when Aaragorn fully took on his kingly aspect when speaking to Eowyn, "Lady..." I thought, "What just happened here? He's never sounded like that."

And then having gone through the audio I read the book in print and was able to really absorb it in a different way and much more slowly than my usual breakneck pace.

Audio opened up Dickens and Tolkien and many other wonderful authors who I just could not make myself read. It has revealed depth in books I thought were simple (such as Asimov's robot mysteries). Listening to Sissy Spacek read To Kill a Mockingbird in her slow, meditative, Texas accent, I am envisioning that familiar book in a richer way than normal.

I would never give up print for audio, but I am thankful that it so well complements regular reading. It has enriched my literary world.

Jenny said...

"Listening to Sissy Spacek read To Kill a Mockingbird in her slow, meditative, Texas accent, I am envisioning that familiar book in a richer way than normal."

That reading is fantastic!

Finicky Cat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Finicky Cat said...

If you can recommend that specific audio LotR, could you tell me where to find it? Our family life requires hours and hours of driving each week - that's my own "if only this one problem were fixed" issue - and I'm awfully picky about the way books are read, so keeping us in audio books can be difficult. We could get WEEKS out of LotR!

Darwin said...

Finicky Cat,

So far as I can tell, the one that I'm listening to is actually the only commonly available audiobook of LotR. It's read by Robert Inglis and I'd say it's quite good. Rob Inglis also did a recording of The Hobbit and there's a good Martin Shaw one of The Silmarilian

If you're looking for long books: I also very much enjoyed Neville Jason's unabridged reading of War & Peace. Now that's long!

Julie D,

Yeah, there's a deliberateness to listening to audiobooks at times. I too also have a tendency to skip any interjected poetry or quotes, so so even though I've read LotR a dozen times or so in print, some of the poetry feels rather new to me while the prose is very familiar.

Julie D. said...

I liked this description:

I've never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say it's a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely takes place in your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes”
― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Finicky Cat said...

Thanks so much, Darwin!