Sunday, October 3, 2010


As for my experience with audiobooks, and to their detractors, let me just say this - it's a different experience than reading in the same way that blind people experience the world in a different way than those with sight. They miss out on brightness, color, and motion, while hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling more acutely and more fully than people who can see. There is definitely an experience that you get by picking through the words on your own via pages. I certainly prefer it, but audiobooks go back to the way stories were told around the campfire - they're given to you. They're an experience. And yet... your brain can still pause, dissect, interpret, cogitate, and process the information in the same way a visually read book can.

There are benefits aside from the convenience of reading while running or doing the dishes. You gain (or have to endure, depending on the performer) the cadence, pronunciation, accents, and mood of the prose. Neil Gaiman reading me his short stories, Barack Obama telling me about his childhood - these are experiences I simply could not manufacture on my own, reading their printed words. Even if I were to adopt my own internal monologue - such as having Sean Connery read Great Expectations to me in my head when I was a high school freshman - it would not have been the same.

I recently read Alberto Manguel's "The Library at Night," and I found these passages to be illuminating in exploring what reading means:

"Socrates - who despised books because he thought they were a threat to our gift of memory, and never deigned to leave a written word - chose to read the speech of the orator Lycias, not to hear it recited by the enthusiastic Phaedrus."

"Precision of recall was deemed all-important, and throughout the Islamic Middle Ages, it was considered more valuable to learn by listening to books read out loud than by private study, because the text then entered the body through the mind and not merely through the eyes. Authors published not so much by transcribing their work themselves as by directing it to their assistants, and students learned by hearing those texts read out to them or by reading them to a teacher."

So sometimes it's better to read with your eyes, and yet it is possible to read with your ears. There is a value to absorbing the information through two different senses.

The caveat is that yes, it's certainly possible to have an audiobook playing in the background, words flowing past your consciousness without being given the attention they deserve. However, it's equally possible to have a book in front of you, turning page after page, skimming along and absorbing absolutely nothing.

In terms of my challenge this year, it's been fascinating to see people push the idea of audiobooks being a "cheat." If the logic goes that I'm not absorbing information - the same logic should extend to skimming. I'm doing my best not to do either, which is why it's so important to me to select books that I'm fairly certain will be good. You don't skim or half-listen to good books. You want every word in your brain.

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