Books: Reading Versus Listening
By Sarah Hutchins
“In my young and more vulnerable days my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” Jake Gyllenhaal dramatizes. “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” With just those few spoken sentences, I am traveling through Nick Carraway’s carefully crafted narrative in one of my favorite books, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Whenever the debate about audiobooks is raised, this is the book I think about. Unlike any other novel, I’ve devoured The Great Gatsby at least a dozen times, read several analyses, and written multiple essays on the characters, plot, and symbolism. Three years ago, just before Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation was released in theaters, I decided to read, in chronological order, everything F. Scott Fitzgerald published, plus a compilation of his letters. Throughout my self-directed course, I even read Trimalchio, an early version of The Great Gatsby. In short, there is no novel I know so deeply as The Great Gatsby, so when I began listening to the audiobook read by Jake Gyllenhaal, I was pleasantly surprised to find through his cadence that the narration took on new aspects.
There was nothing really new, but the existing textures were defined differently, almost as though I was walking through my living room for the first time since someone else, unbeknownst to me, had rearranged the furniture.
I loved it.
Perhaps for some people, this type of shock is unwelcome. We readers can get used to the comfortable voices inside our heads, and the process of listening to an audiobook requires that we relinquish that control. We must instead trust the narrator and allow ourselves to be swept away by their voice. While I find it captivating, I understand that this isn’t for everyone. Once in a great while, I find a narrator whose voice is intolerable, but there might be another version with a different voice actor. At times, I find that I prefer a particular physical book to the audio version, and but at other times it’s vice versa. Regardless, I always notice different things when I listen rather than physically read a book. If I had infinite time, I would ideally both read and listen to all of the great works of literature and non-fiction. Unfortunately, few, if any, of us have such a luxury, and, since we must make a choice, the differences between the two mediums lead people to the central question: Is one “better” than the other?
Whenever I mention that I’m listening to an audiobook, I see the other person’s face pinch in disgust. The bold ones ask, “Don’t you feel that you get more from actually reading a book?” It’s meant as a rhetorical question, a reproof, because everyone knows that a book is better absorbed when read. They go on to tell me that they listen to podcasts while cleaning, exercising, and driving, but—and they add this with hushed reverence—never books. I’ve even had some people go so far as to state that listening to an audiobook “doesn’t count” as having read a particular book. Yet, isn’t it pretentious and autocratic to presume another reader’s level of comprehension of a book based solely on the medium?
On July 24, 2016, University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham wrote a blog post that tackles this problem. He discusses how we decode language and reminds us that when we read, there’s usually a voice in our heads. The only variance between our voice and an audiobook actor’s voice is the prosody. Especially with old-fashioned narratives, such as Shakespeare, an actor might be able to use the rhythm, pacing, pitch, stress, and intonation of the speech patterns to better communicate the author’s intended meaning and aid in comprehension. In some cases, audiobook listeners might have a better understanding than physical readers. Willingham writes, “For most books, for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing.”
Willingham’s assertions supports my students’ claims that listening to audiobooks helps them to focus on a story and teaches them how to read a text. One student, who hadn’t been able to focus on a written narrative in years, fell in love with the audiobook of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She confessed to sitting in her car long after she’d parked or sneaking to the bathroom so that she could listen to the next chapter away from her family. Then, she’d begin questioning the motives of the doctor or the monster, so she’d go back and listen again to parts of the narrative. Isn’t this truly what reading is about? We are transported to another world where our imaginations are free to roam, prodding deeper and deeper into the depths of the world and the characters until the fictional world merges with our own. Through our own disillusionment and self-created chaos, we better understand not only Dr. Frankenstein and Jay Gatsby but also ourselves.
To all you audiobook lovers, it’s not the medium that counts, but how you experience it. During a lecture I attended during grad school, novelist Susan Taylor Chehak emphasized that studies show it’s not what you read but how you read that determines whether something is literature. Her argument could easily be extended and combined with Willingham’s. If the audiobook is in the background while you’re absorbed in something else, it’s not any different than skim reading while distracted or absorbed in your own thoughts. However, if you’re actively engaged with the audiobook, it is more or less the same as reading the physical version. It’s not whether you read or listen, but how you do it.
Postscript: And, to all you Fitzgerald lovers, I’d Die For You, a new collection of previously unpublished and uncollected stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald will be released on April 11, 2017.
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