Archive | 4:47 am
5 May

Reading vs. Listening

I’ve been thinking about the difference between listening to a book on audiotape and reading a book.  I posed to friends who, for the most part, responded thoughtfully (well, all except for the one guy who directed me to his blog where he publicized the last couple of best sellers he listened heard on Audible).

Why is it that audio books don’t appeal to me the way they do to my friend or, for that matter, to my wife?  Aside from professional reading which is largely about data mining, reading is a meditative act for me.  Not meditative in the abstract sense, but rather in the sense that reading commands my complete attention.  I read with pencil in hand (yes, a particular pencil) because of the marginalia that marks my interaction with the text.  I do think of reading as interaction with an author.  But here’s the thing:  when I listen to an audio book, I’m just a listener; I’m not in dialogue with the author.  No conversation, just consumption.  My friend Cliff may have been thinking along these same lines when he told me:

I don’t like audio books because they are too linear for me. When I read, I linger

 over phrases and passages. I go back and re-read pages, or words. Or stop and

think about what was just said. In the narrated format, the experience is driven

 too much by someone else’s time, and not by my interaction with the words.

My friend Brandon observed:

 …I seem to get lost in my thoughts when I listen to an audiobook, but when reading

my attention tends to be more binary…I’m either attending to the task or not


My friend Jan felt that audiobooks were more engrossing than reading, but Joe added:

Audio controls your pace (hard to skip, go back, etc.), forces voice images,

 frees you to do as Brandon suggests.

Jaimie said that she didn’t like someone else’s voice in her head, that she liked finding he own voice as she read.  That makes sense to me, but I also can think of exceptions.  Part of the fun of reading poetry, for instance, is the joy of finding a voice as I read.  Most of the time, I’m trying to discover the poet’s voice, or maybe my own, as I read.  Some poems are more accessible than others.  Try reading this poem by Albert Goldbarth (The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 2007):


           Eight hours by bus, and night

           was on them. He could see himself now

           in the window, see his head there with the country

           running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.

           Darkness outside; darkness in the bus — as if the sea

           were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it.

           He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly,

           to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so

           occasional headlights struck it into life.

           But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself

           to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only

          overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:

          only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders

          as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.

I like “Shawl” quite a lot, but felt I was missing something in my reading.  I chose this poem because I recently attended one of Goldbarth’s readings where he read this poem out loud.  This was a bit like listening to an audio book, but being read to, of course, differs from listening to an audio recording in a number of important ways.   Here’s a little piece on Goldbarth that features his reading as a point of comparison.

Goldbarth has a music and a drama in his reading that I wasn’t able to match in my own.  Poetry is, admittedly, the toughest case.  It makes the best case for listening as opposed to reading.  Fiction and nonfiction do not make the case for me, though it is a matter of degree to be sure.  Although David McCullough reading his own work is an exception, in most cases I prefer to take my nonfiction and most of my fiction at my own pace and in my own way.  Listening to it reduces me to a simple consumer, while reading somehow places me in conversation with the author.

And then, of course, the most telling difference of all.  As my friend Michael pointed out:

       When I fall asleep while reading a book it tends to fall to the floor and wake me up.