Audio books bring back the full experience of literature

As a fan of audio books, I am always bothered by those who act as if listening to a book being read aloud is somehow a secondary experience. For some, reading appears to be synonymous with silent reading; they believe those who have listened to a book read aloud either haven't really read it or are even somehow "cheating."

But literature began entirely as something to be listened to. The great epics of the ancients, Homer, the Scandinavian sagas, were all oral poetry in their first formulation. Even works which have come primarily to be experienced in print were first written to be read aloud, as is the case for Chaucer and much medieval literature. Even today, although there are poems which are written solely to be experienced on the page, most poetry is implicitly designed to be heard.

Listening to a literary text also offers opportunities for understanding that are less present in silent reading. When listening to a book, I find that I emerge with a much more intuitive sense of the author's prose style. Hearing syntax aloud can almost be infectious. Once after listening to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, I found myself writing ponderously balanced sentences for the simplest of tasks. Understanding prose style is helpful for works in which the style is an important part of the author's craft, but it also helps us understand character because good authors make their characters speak in distinctive ways, ways it is much easier to hear than to see. Some of these effects are achievable through silent reading, but the problem is that they rely on our own ability to voice the language and to hear our voices. Both of these tasks are far more difficult then we commonly imagine. Anyone who has ever been puzzled or embarrassed by hearing a recording of his or her own voice will know how little we actually listen to ourselves. We are also specifically taught not to sound out sentences when reading; we even regard the practice as a mark of an immature reader.

Of course listening does have its drawbacks, and it is certainly not possible to analyze a work fully without having access to the printed version, a fact that is as true of drama as it is ofother literature. Silent reading has its own advantages and facilitates different kinds of understanding. But to privilege reading over listening doesn't make sense. Why then is the attitude so prevalent? Partly, this is product of our educational system because reading is so important and also so difficult for many school age children. We encourage children to read for themselves as soon as they can, and the result is that listening sometimes becomes indelibly infantilized. Today, some adults are unable to listen to extended passages of prose without irritation and impatience. As audio books become more widely available, however, we have an opportunity to change some of these attitudes and reintegrate the oral experience of literature into the habits of mature readers. It may be too late for many adults, especially those who were read aloud to only as very young children. For the younger generation, however, we have an opportunity to make reading aloud a family activity extending into well into young adulthood.

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