Notes on reading

Ears and eyes: listening isn’t reading

Bosch drawing

Not long ago, David Baddiel, the actor and comedian, told his Twitter followers he was ‘rereading’ Middlemarch. In a series of tweets on the experience, he claimed that George Eliot’s novel was better than anything by Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Proust. It was, he concluded, ‘the greatest novel ever written in English’. Whether or not one agrees with his valuation, for me the most interesting bit of the thread came at the end, when he explained he’d been listening to the audiobook, ‘unbelievably brought to life by Juliet Stephenson, a fabulous acting performance’. In other words he wasn’t ‘rereading’ it at all. He was listening to someone else reading it. Someone who was acting.

Though I don’t listen to them myself, I don’t hold an animus towards audiobooks. They’re a useful medium for those who don’t have the time to sit and read, for those with a visual impairment or dyslexia, for those who simply don’t like negotiating pages and pages of plain text. Audiobooks can be consumed during other activities: driving, sitting on a train, doing chores. That’s how I use radio programmes and podcasts: as something to listen to while I’m doing other things. Books to me are in a different category. They require my undivided attention. They demand it.

Listening to a book being read and reading it oneself are two different forms of engagement with a text, two different forms of experience. Like many, perhaps most people, I don’t read a book in a wholly linear fashion. I will flick backwards through the pages to remind myself about a character or an incident that has become foregrounded again. I will re-read sentences, paragraphs, and pages I’ve just read if I feel I haven’t fully grasped something or if I’ve grasped it but want to savour it again. I will check how many pages a chapter has left and wonder how it will end. Reading is a richer experience than listening to an audiobook. And once the language and ideas in a book reach a certain level of complexity, it becomes very difficult to process them in audio form, lacking that facility to go back and read again. (I realize you can ‘re-wind’ but the operation is tedious and imprecise).

Baddiel praised Juliet Stephenson’s acting performance. Here’s another difference. Audiobook narrators, most of whom are actors, are performing. They will do the different voices, they will pace their delivery in a certain way, they will add shades of light and dark to their voice. They will do a lot of the work for the listener. But it’s an interpretation as well as a reading. The experience is not wholly passive but it’s much more passive than reading the book yourself. And the printed page holds a heap of information — paragraph breaks, spaces, italics, chapter and section headings — that can be conveyed only in an attenuated form in audio.

One powerful cultural aspect of listening is that it’s historically prior to reading, more primitive if you will (in a non-pejorative sense). People listened to poems, travellers tales, and tribal disputes for thousands of years before they read them. It’s called storytelling not storyreading for a reason. Sometimes the spoken word has a power that the printed word cannot match. The speaking of poetry or the kind of poetic prose used by the great orators can tap into into something more primal, more spiritual, than printed verse, which can seem inert in comparison. Sometimes. It depends on who is doing the speaking.

Most of what I’ve said so far focuses on fiction. In the case of non-fiction, it’s obvious that there will be a lot less acting going on. A business or self-help audiobook is more about information transfer than entertainment. A showbiz autobiography will, I guess, have a large performative component. These kinds of non-fiction may even be even better in the audiobook format. I don’t know if there are such things, but imagine an audiobook of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Those wouldn’t work. They are artefacts designed to be read, closely, not listened to.

Audiobooks have reached a mass market in the last ten years. This is great for authors as well as listeners. It’s another channel for another product. The introduction of home video technology back in the day lead to a regular flow of films that were classed as ‘straight-to-video’, films that didn’t have the big budgets or the mass appeal to get a theatrical release but could recoup their investment in the rental market. The streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are now making their own ‘straight-to-video’ movies, admittedly in a much grander style. I wonder if something similar might happen in the audiobook market. ’Straight-to-audio’ might be a category of book that nobody would want to sit down and read but that might fill in the time while commuting to work, taking the kids to school, or waiting in the supermarket queue. Whatever happens, audiobook culture is here to stay. I can only hope it doesn’t reduce reading to an activity akin to calligraphy or reed thatching, the pursuit of a few die-hard traditionalists.

[The image of Hieronymus Bosch’s drawing The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]