Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's the Difference?: Some Thoughts on Books and Audiobooks

I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:

"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"

I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.

These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.

One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.

Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.

Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio.  Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.  

Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing. 


eharmonica said...

Reading Wodehouse and listening to Wodehouse are completely different experiences. But I'm hooked on Jonathan Cecil's reading him to me.

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks for the rec! I am absolutely going to check that out.