After several decades of near-unbroken consolidation of radio broadcasters, the spoken word is enjoying a much needed renaissance driven by satellite radio and podcasting. Audio books too – the much-maligned little nephew of book publishing – have undergone an unprecedented boom, driven by faster internet connections, online retailers devoted exclusively to audio (most notably Audible), and the ubiquity of portable mp3 players that can hold hundreds, even thousands, of hours of audio. For a society of multitaskers, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but the debate rages as to whether listening to a book can in any way compare to reading it with one’s eyes. The NY Times ran a story yesterday about the new craze in auditory reading, and about the stigma that is frequently attached to audio books:
Some critics are dismayed at the migration to audio books. The virtue of reading, they say, lies in the communion between writer and reader, the ability to pause, to reread a sentence, and yes, read it out loud – to yourself. Listeners are opting for convenience, they say, at the expense of engaging the mind and imagination as only real reading can.
Or, as Harold Bloom (quoted in the Times piece) puts it:
Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.
Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading agrees. He insists that listening does not equal reading, end of story.
But I would not be so quick to dismiss audio books. They are admittedly a different kind of reading – a subset of visual reading – but important and potentially enriching nonetheless. For many – the blind, the visually impaired, the learning disabled – people for whom visual reading is either impossible or an agonizing trial – this subset of reading is reading. Dolphin, a British software developer, makes EaseReader, an ebook reader for PCs that “combines electronic text with pre-recorded audio.” As you listen, it pages through the book, highlighting the text that is being spoken, and allowing you to jump around, pinpointing passages – re-listening – with incredible precision. For the millions with reading disabilities, this could provide the accessibility of audio without sacrficing close reading of the visual page. Pearson, the biggest educational publisher in America, just announced a strategic partnership with Audible to produce downloadable audio study guides, and perhaps eventually, entire textbooks. In a recent press release, they maintain that:
There is compelling research that identifies 30% of our population as auditory learners. By coupling this research with the growing popularity of downloadable audio, we believe these study guides can make a significant difference in student performance by accommodating diverse learning and life styles. Students today want the option to be untethered from traditional modes of learning. This product line fills a much-needed gap in learning content for a mobile and multitasking generation.
And what about these multitaskers? – the principal target of derision by literary purists.. Few would argue that you can fully engage with a book while simultaneously scooping out a gutter or paying bills. But there are plenty of activities that, while requiring the full involvement of the body, otherwise leave the mind to drift. I read most of my books in the traditional way – with hands and eyes – and for me, this is undoubtedly the fullest, richest kind of engagement. But with audio books, I’m able to read at other, less sedentary, times. When I was little, I listened to books on tape while building Lego cities or Brio trains. I listened over and over to the unabridged “Secret Garden,” “Three Children and It” and the Paddington Bear stories. I also read print books – tons of them – but these trance-like experiences of slowly absorbing the story while moving one’s hands – this was tremendously valuable. And since I listened to them repeatedly, I would argue that I knew those stories better than if I had read them once with my eyes and then shelved the book. You could say that books on tape helped me make the transition from being read to by my parents and becoming a fully independent reader.
Nowadays, I like to run, and for me, the thing that makes running hardest is not the demands it makes on my legs or respiratory system, but rather the way that it fails to occupy my brain. The mind revolts – the customary patter of thoughts, large and small, becomes a kind of torture. Unless you can slow your mind down, it’s impossible to stop thinking: “when is this going to end?” “has it only been eight minutes?!” “why didn’t I just watch TV?”… Sometimes, you can get your mind to behave and sort of synch up with the steadiness of the breathing. It helps to run in a beautiful place. But this isn’t always possible, especially when you live in a big city and a treadmill in a gym is your only option. Lately I’ve been listening to books on an iPod. Not only has it made exercise feel less like a chore, it’s allowing me to absorb “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson – a charming popular history of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that I never would have had time to read otherwise. While running, I’m a totally captive audience, and the rhythm of the body and the breath actually turns off the rotating critical knives that so frequently hijack my visual reading experience. As I move, the White City is slowly erected in my mind’s eye. If I miss a bit, I simply reread, er, rewind.
Audio books can also be a boon to people who spend a lot of time cooped up in cars. My grandmother is constantly zigzagging all over the northeast United States in her Subaru, and with audio books she’s able to use this time productively. Over the past year, she’s absorbed half a dozen books on the founding period of the American republic. Now I can’t get her to stop talking about Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison. For a natural lifelong learner like my grandmother, audio books have yielded great rewards.