Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading Vs. Listening - My Affair with Audio Books

I started to listen to books on tape several years ago when I began driving to work. I felt that it gave me an opportunity to "read" books that I wouldn't ordinarily sit down to read but knew I'd get something out of.

I've wondered quite a bit during the years that I've been "listening" if I am actually "reading" the book as its read to me, or just hearing the book. As a lifelong reader and also a writer by profession, it is a question that I wonder about a lot. Sometimes, if I'm listening to a book that really grabs me through the language or story, I will buy the book and sometimes read along, or go back to sections that made me think about something important. I did that with Beloved by Toni Morrisson., among others. I'm not sure I would have bought "Beloved" if I hadn't listened to it. And I got so much out of hearing Toni Morrisson herself, read the story that when I sat down to reread sections, I could hear her voice in my head.

I'm now listening to Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale." I read the book maybe 20-years ago when it first came out and thought it was one of the best books I ever read. I was transfixed by some of the imagery and the tale of New York City in Winter that is filtered throughout. But now that I"m listening to it, I realize that I don't remember much of the story. There are bits and pieces I recall, but LISTENING to it somehow makes the imagery come to life. I find myself thinking about the parallels the anaologies, the craft of the word. When I read, I'm not sure I reflect as much on the actual story inside the story and what the writer is actually saying.

I think I actually retain more of the story and allusions, illusions, language and nuance better when I hear it than when I read it. But I'm sure it is different for everyone.

What I do know is that I can recall details of some of my favorite books as I drive past different roads and remember driving the route while listening to one book or another.

I tried to find studies online about the difference between reading and listening and what one retains/learns, but apparently there's not much research out there. We begin our love of stories and books when our mother or parent or teacher reads stories to us. I know my son still has memories of some of the great books we shared together.

Here's what Steven King said about listening vs. reading on one blog I did manage to find. I agree with him:

"I've argued all my life that the story means more than the delivery systems involved (and that includes the writer). I have never been able to understand the prejudice some people seem to feel about recorded books, for instance. Not only are good stories better when they are told out loud; bad stories declare themselves almost at once, because the spoken word is merciless."

Steven King


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