I’ve recently started listening to audio books. The idea never appealed to me much because I’ve never liked being read to. Reading is a solitary experience for me and being read to always seemed a little icky, though I couldn’t tell you why.
Certainly being read to has a venerable history. At one time, all writing was meant to be read aloud, since few people could read. And reading aloud was family entertainment in the pre-radio, pre-TV days. And, of course, reading to children is both cozy and the first step towards their literacy.
So it’s not like listening to books is anything new. But downloadable audio books are increasingly popular (though the growing popularity of ebooks is the headline news in publishing.) Fans of audio books even have their own magazine.
The first audio book I listened to was Bossypants, which is read by Tina Fey herself. Now I’m listening to Never Let Me Go, by Kazua Ishiguro, which is beautifully read by Rosalyn Landor, who strikes a tone as wistful as the book and conveys changes of character with just the slightest change in her voice. Narration, I realize, is an art form unto itself.
But I’m still not sure how I feel about the audio book. It might be seducing me, but I worry about whether I’m having the experience of the book the author originally intended. Do we lose something of a novel when we don’t see the words spelled out in front of us? Is the medium integral to the message?
I didn’t think about this with Bossypants, a chatty autobiography read by the author. But with novels, I wonder if the experience of listening to a book is the equivalent of animating a painting. Cool, but different from what it was. Could we label one “better”?
A lot of what I found in my tiptoe through the research focused on learning. For example, listening and reading simultaneously is useful for people learning a foreign language. I also learned that it’s easier to be distracted from reading than from listening, but that instructional texts are probably better read than heard,
But perhaps most salient to my question about listening to novels is a 1981 article called “Reading and listening to high and low imagery sentences.”
A series of experiments measured participants’ response times to true or false questions, some of which required imagery. For example, “A grapefruit is bigger than a cantaloupe” requires you to actually imagine those fruits in order to respond.
What this research revealed perhaps argues for the superiority of the audio book: Reading interferes with imagery.
When you think about it, this makes sense because (as the researchers explain) reading and imagining both require visual representation. It appears that when the visual bits of our brain are busy taking in the written word, there’s less of them available for creating an image of the content.
And indeed, I find that to create an image while I read, I often must pause, look away from the page, and imagine. With an audio book, the images come practically unbidden. Listening doesn’t get in the way of that.
The skill of the narrator undoubtedly affects the perception of the listener with audio books—but so does the skill of a reader who is reading a book. The better you read, the better your understanding of what you’ve read.
Listening also requires you to hear every single word, unlike reading, in which some of us are likely to take in whole sentences at a time, swallowing books in big gulps. That must also have an effect on our experience of a book, and for the better. I may be a more thorough listener than I am reader.
So far, everything I’ve read speaks to the superiority of listening to rather than reading a book. Funny though: I can’t imagine curling up in a big armchair and spending an afternoon listening to a book. I’m certain I would become restless; I do most of my listening while driving or walking the dog or cleaning house. For some reason, reading seems more of an activity than listening, even though both require the same amount of cognitive engagement, and the physical engagement of reading—holding a book and turning pages—is nominal.
At the moment, I’m coming down on the side of reading over listening, although I am teetering. (Not that I have to choose—I can do both.)
Do any fiction writers out there have feelings about people reading vs. listening to their stories?
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Sophia Dembling (November 26, 2011)
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Last reviewed: 28 Nov 2011