May 26, 2005

Listening to books.

Should people who read books look down on people who listen to audiobooks? Many do: "I like to read my books," they say. And the writers can be snobby about it too, like Frank McCourt, who says listening is better than nothing. But he's also snobby about the actors who record audiobooks -- they do "this phony breathing." You should read his books, he's saying, and if you can't do that, you should listen to him reading his books to you.

Well, maybe that's how writers are: Come listen to me, in my world, and see everything as I see it.

Though I don't like the book-reader's flat-out snobbery, some of the preference for reading books over listening to them is justified. If you're reading a book you're probably only reading. You're making a total experience out of the book, and your brain is more deeply engaged, generating mental pictures.

But this is not always so. Some people read a book as a way to fall asleep. They can see sleep coming on as the words blur. The toilet is a favorite place for reading. And then there are the few people -- myself included -- who will read while walking. We're being careless and looking ridiculous at the same time -- especially ridiculous if you need reading glasses.

Book-listeners can try to act superior or at least equal, I note, by emphasizing that they walk while reading. Just call those book-readers "sedentary." Couch potatoes! Why doesn't sitting around with a book come in for the same insults aimed at TV-watching? And don't tell me it's the quality. People listen to a lot of trashy books. And I might be watching "Nights of Cabiria" on my TV.

It's just a different experiece to hear someone intone the words than to look at the words. You gain something by hearing another person's inflections but you lose the ability to search for your own interpretations. A lot depends on the book. Some books yield more meaning when read by a good reader. Humor comes through really well on the audio mental channel. Other books are incomprehensible on audio. You need to control the speed and be free to think about things as you go along.

Back in the day when you had to rent a big set of cassette tapes to hear an unabridged book, I rented "Mrs. Dalloway" for a long car trip only to find that I simply couldn't understand it on tape. I kept going back and starting over, but I never could begin to grasp it. And some wonderful old English actress was doing the reading. I kept feeling as though I could see her there with the book and feeling that I wanted to grab it out of her hands. Let me see that. Even with the financial incentive of having paid too much to rent the tapes, I never got past the first five minutes. I constantly found myself thinking about something and missing the next line. It was an exasperating experience of continually losing my place.

So read books or listen to books or watch TV or listen to music or walk around in silence or have a conversation with some real live people. Whatever you want. All have potential to be sublime or worthless or somewhere in between.


Dave said...

I've never listened to a book on CD. But, McCourt's comments are interesting, as the other day, I happened to walk by the books-on-CD section of the bookstore, and saw Joyce's Ulysses on CD (ten CDs, to be precise).

McCourt was listed as one of the people who recorded for it.

Also, I think that, for a book like Ulysses, a book-on-CD is useful if only because people would get more out of it by listening to it than by reading it. Same with Faulkner, et al.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: I would think hearing "Ullysses" read by someone with an Irish accent would give a completely different feeling to the language and open up new understanding for a non-Irish person.

Be said...

I think that both reading and being read to are very worthwhile experiences. Being read to is a calming, soothing thing. A bit of escapism, but still with a connection to the outside world, as I'm focusing on my friend's voice, as well as a connection to the person who's reading to me (as it's his/her voice I'm concentrating on). When I read to myself, I tend to shut everything out and focus on the world in between the pages, so total escapism.

The only thing I tend to find a bit difficult is reading aloud to other people. My visual is much faster than my verbal, so I find myself reading ahead and trying to remember what I was supposed to say a couple words back. That's a challenge.

Books on tape? I understand their utility, but just as a matter of personal preference (no snobbery), I don't tend to use them.

Roger S. Mitchell said...

Rather than being an either/or proposition, audio and print can also complement each other. This is particularly true for a special case like the Iliad, which, as I understand it, was originally recited by rhapsodes at a gathering rather than read individually. Reading Robert Fagles' vigorous translation is one thing. Listening to Derek Jacobi's wonderful performance of it adds another level of experience altogether (and one I highly recommend).

Generally, I use audio books for a long trip or the commute to work. Because I'm usually reading a different print book when I'm not mobile, I'm getting additional "reading" done that I wouldn't otherwise get to. I also tend to get audio books that I know I will listen to over and over again (and that can bear the repetition). It's another way to get very familiar with a text.

Much depends on the reader and the text. Nonfiction books tend not to work very well, but I'm currently listening to the audio version of David Hackett Fischer's "Washington's Crossing," and it's excellent.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Have you ever tried to listen to sections of a book and read the other parts? HARD TO DO.

I had the experience of driving across country for the first time with a girlfriend some years ago. She elected to read Howard's End to me aloud as we drove (don't know why she wanted to do this, and I don't know how she could do it either, without getting sick).

Of course, I just loved it! The book was alive and the drive was majectic squared (great scenery, great soundtrack).

However, we only got through 2/3 of the book and I had to finish it by reading it myself. I couldn't understand the book! I couldn't quite connect all the things I read to the book that was dancing round me as it was read to me. It was just a different book entirely - I couldn't find the continuity of characters, plot points, tone, nothing.

I suppose it has to do with how our brains process (read: understand) the same bit of info differently depending on which route it takes into our brain, right? We know that some people learn better by listening, some by seeing, some need to write it themselves, etc. It must be something like that.

Dan from Madison said...

I work 60+ hours a week and have two kids under 5 - there isn't a lot of quiet time to read (something I miss very much) at this time of my life. My only quiet time is my commute to and from work - 30 minutes each way. CD books are a great way for me to get some "reading" in. Not complaining, its just the way it is.

Mark Daniels said...

I've probably listened to ten audio books through the years. I don't feel snobbish about reading books. It's just that most of the books I read aren't on CD or tape.

Besides, I have what I guess must be a rare talent, maybe a freakish one.

A few weeks ago, I was out on a brisk walk in my neighborhood, book in hand, reading as I did so. Two women approached me as they walked. I looked up to say hello, but one of them spoke first, saying to me, "Wow! How do you do that? I couldn't possibly walk that quickly and read too."

I even carry a pen with me on my walks, underlining as I read. Until that woman greeted me as she did, it never dawned on me that this was different from what others might do. But now that I think of it, I realize I've never seen anyone else walking, reading, and underlining.

So, perhaps I have less need of audio books than others.

When my family and I take long trips, I usually read to them aloud, being the only one who can read in the car without barfing. Most of the time during these cross-country jaunts, I've read biographies and histories, with an occasional work of fiction thrown in. This may help to explain why our son just graduated with degrees in History and Philosophy, while our daughter has just declared History as her major.

As usual, Ann, you beat me to the punch. I plan, later today, to write a piece on my blog about the NYT article you cite. (But it will look at it slightly differently.)

Gotta run...I'm in between appointments and some writing I need to do for my work.

Mark Daniels said...

I hasten to add that I don't read while driving, which would probably be even more fatal than drinking and driving.

My wife happily admits to being a "control freak" who loves being behind the wheel. So, I'm the designated reader for long trips.

For the past twenty-one years, I haven't had a commute between home and work. For six of those years, I lived next door to my office. For most of the past fifteen, my office has been in my home. So, no commuter-time listening to books.

Ann Althouse said...

Stranger: Very interesting -- in a brain science way. Seems the info got loaded in differently and then didn't connect up right!

That reminds me -- not that it's obviously related -- of the way I get a good visual memory from reading, where I know the placement of ideas on the pages. I think this reinforces my understanding of the book. But placement on the page is not a significant thing to know, and when I listen to audiobooks I make connections to the landscape. There's a place over by West Towne Mall that I'll always associate with the part of "The Brothers Karamazov" where the holy old monk dies and his body unexpectedly putrifies quickly.

Dale B said...

It never occurred to me that someone would could get snippy about listening to a book rather than reading it. Listening is certainly a different experience than reading but it seems to me that there is a place for both.

I listen to books in my car. Not always but it's a nice occasional alternative the radio. At home I read real books.

My neighbor listens to books when she's jogging or walking her dog. Again, it's an alternative to radio.

RPM said...

Frank McCourt's reading of "Angela's Ashes" is absolutely stunning, one of the best I've listened to. The Irish cadence indeed makes the difference.

I've also made landscapes part of my memory of an audiobook. McCourt's story begins outside of a mall in Albany. "Lord Jim" will always pass through Chicago on I-90 at dusk. The plane crash in "Drop City" occurs above I-87 near Poughkeepsie.

Audiobooks got me through my days of a 40 mile commute each way.

Tristram said...

Well, I listen to a lot of books, because I listne to them while jogging. I actually find my attention is much more focused on the audio than at most any other time (well, it is close when I drive. Nothing makes a 2000 mile drive seem shorter than a good audio book or two).

I have found that some books are much better listened to than read. Mostly, they are traditionally oral stories, like "The Illiad"/"The Odyssey", "Beowulf", or poetry like "The Pilgrim's Progress".

I also really like Dashiell Hammit and Stephen King Audio books, but then they tell a good story, and it comes through spoken or read.

If not for the audio books I would either not have "read" as many books in the last year, or I would be even fatter than currently.

Patrick said...

I listen to a lot of audio books, I drive all day. Plus I always have at least one real book going at all times, sometimes two books.

Check into for thousands of on-line audio books that can be loaded onto your mp3 player or burned to CD. Well worth the price.

If you have a decent sized library system, check there too, Milwaukee has thousands of books on tape and CD for free.

Slac said...

Anne, you said,

"If you're reading a book you're probably only reading. You're making a total experience out of the book, and your brain is more deeply engaged, generating mental pictures."

I don't understand, because in the second sentence you say that the reader is doing a lot more than "only" reading!

In any case I don't think the level of engagement of the brain is different for reading. I've been listening to a biography of Steve Jobs as I do chores, and I've been able to create images just as well as had I been reading. Maybe I am just different?

But I would never listen to a book written by say, Plato, for instance. I need to be able to underline stuff, reflect, look words up, write notes, and read certain passages over and over again, likewise for things like law cases or anything else academic.

So I would say that audio books are advantageous if you want to experience a book linearly, without much stopping or reflecting, and reading books are good for a non-linear more "thoughtful" treatment (if not more "imaginative").

Ann Althouse said...

Another advantage of visually reading is that you can learn spelling.

Slac, I'm looking at you. You think because you drop a letter from your name, you can just add a letter to mine?

Re Ann/Anne: please read this.

LizrdGizrd said...

My wife and I both enjoy listening to books on long trips. I've even listened to books that I've read in dead-tree versions. I think that audio is a preferable choice in reading mediums in cases that require you to use your eyes for navigation.

Slac said...


I apologize.

Frank Borger said...

Books on tape/cd are normally not my favorite way of reading but I do have one I love.

It's John Cleese reading "The Screwtape Letters" by C S Lewis.

When I read the book version, I was subvocalizing the text, and it was my voice and phrasing, (which tends to be speed reading.)

When I listened to the tape, it was John's voice, phrasing and timing. The effect was spectacularly different.

Generally, I would avoid any book read "by the author." Few great authors are great speakers.

Big Hal said...

I'm a huge book worm and enjoy both reading and listening to books. Typically I listen to books while I work out and during my commute and I read at lunch and in the evenings. Besides my Audible player and actual books I also go out to and pull down a few books to keep on my palm pilot for those times I forget to grab a book on my way out the door.

Wade_Garrett said...

Listening to Sarah Vowell or David Sedaris on tape is more fun than reading them in print. I've done both and prefer the audiobooks. Even somebody like David McCullough, who moonlights as a documentary narrator, has some great books on tape. I like audiobooks for long car rides, but limit them to either humor or sports or thrillers. I agree with Ann and some of the other posters here that serious literature loses a lot in audiobook format, and even going back to the beginning doesn't sort it out.

Claudia Lane said...

No, no,no! This is not an either/or issue. A good reading compliments a good writing. Listening to a good audio book is like listening to a play. When I listen to a good reading the images form in my brain as the words flow - a wonderful experience. If I read (dead tree version) a book I like, I get the audio version to expand the experience of the book.

Re author's readings of their own books, McCourt's rendition of Angela's Ashes was terrific, and I can also recommend Lance Armstrong's readings of It's Not about the Bike and Barbara Kingsolver's reading of her Prodigal Summer.

Joseph White said...

While I've never listened to a book, I imagine hearing a first-person narrative must be easier that hearing a third person narrative, or at least more "natural," since that's the way most people tell stories to their friends.

Claudia Lane said...

Just remembered another excellent author-as-narrator book: Michael Lewis's read of his own Moneyball. This is a must-read/listen for baseball fans! Lewis reads an abridged CD and the audible download versions, but other "editions" are read by another voice.