Listening as Reading

Some more about audiobooks today.

I still remember my shock and dismay a couple of years ago when I clicked on to the New York Times book page and found an advertisement of much a younger, more handsome and vaguely Mediterranean-looking young man who oozed sex appeal as he looked out at me from the screen with headphones on his ears.

“Why Read?” asked the caption.

Surely this was the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it, to say nothing of being a poor marketing strategy for a newspaper industry increasingly casting about in vain for new readers.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that audiobooks have developed a generally sexy and sophisticated cache for literary types that other shorthand ways to literature typically lack. As an English professor, I’ve been intrigued lately that a number of colleagues around and about have told me they listen to audiobooks to “keep up on their reading.” To some degree I’ve always imagined this as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I never read the book, but I watched the movie,” which has itself been about on a par with reading Sparknotes.

However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, another colleague recently took issue with my general despairing sense that the reading of literature, at least, is on the decline, no matter the degree to which students may be now reading interactively on the web. “Yes,” she said, “but what about audiobooks?” She went on to cite the growth in sales over the past few years as evidence that interest in literature may not be waning after all.

My immediate response is a little bit like that of Scott Esposito over at Conversational reading. In a post a couple of years ago Scott responded to an advocate of audiobooks with the following:

Sorry Jim, but when you listen to a book on your iPod, you are no more reading that book than you are reading a baseball game when you listened to Vin Scully do play-by-play for the Dodgers.

It gets worse:

[Quoting Jim] But audio books, once seen as a kind of oral CliffsNotes for reading lightweights, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else.

Well, if you’re doing something else then you’re not really reading, now are you? Listen Jim, and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?

It’s not reading. It’s pretending that you give a damn about books when you really care so little about them that you’ll try to process them at the same time you’re scraping Pookie’s dog craps up off the sidewalk.

I have to grin because Scott is usually so much more polite. Nevertheless, I cite Scott at length because viscerally, in the deepest reaches of my id, I am completely with him and he said it better than I could anyway.

However, it’s worth pausing over the question of audiobooks a little further. I don’t agree with one of Scott’s respondents over at if:book, who describes listening to audiobooks as a kind of reading. But it is an experience related to reading, and so it’s probably worth parsing what kind of experience audiobooks actually provide and how that experience fits in with our understanding of what reading really is.

As I’ve said a couple of times, I think we lose sight of distinctions by having only one word, “reading,” that covers a host of activities. I don’t buy the notion that listening can be understood as the same activity as reading, though the if:book blog rightly points out the significance of audiobooks to the visually impaired. Indeed, one of my own colleagues has a visual disability and relies on audiobooks and other audio versions of printed texts to do his work. Even beyond these understandable exceptions, however, Scott’s definition of reading above privileges a particular model of deep reading that, in actual fact, is relatively recent in book history.

Indeed, going back to the beginnings of writing and reading, what we find is that very few people read books at all. Most people listened to books/scrolls/papyri being read. TheChrist reading in the synagogue temple reader and the town crier are the original of audiobooks and podcasts. In ancient Palestine, for instance, it’s estimated that in even so bibliocentric a culture as that of the Jewish people only 5 to 15% of the population could read at all, and the reading that went on often did not occur in deep intensive reading like that which Scott and I imagine when we think about what reading really is. Instead, much of the experience of reading was through ritual occasions in which scriptures would be read aloud as a part of worship. This is why biblical writers persistently call on people to “Hear the Word.” This model of reading persists in Jewish and Christian worship today, even when large numbers of the religious population are thoroughly literate. See Issachar Ryback’s “In Shul” for an interesting image from the history of Judaism.

Indeed, in the history of writing and reading, listening to reading is more the norm than not if we merely count passing centuries. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Reformation that the model for receiving texts became predominantly focused on the individuals intense and silent engagement with the written word of the book. In this sense, we might say that the Hebrews of antiquity weren’t bibliocentric so much as logocentric—word-centered but not necessarily book-centered.

Along these lines, the model of intense engagement—what scholars of book history call “intensive reading”—is only one historical model of how reading should occur. Many scholars in the early modern period used “book wheels” in order to have several books open in front book wheelof them at the same time. This is not exactly the same thing as multi-tasking that Scott abhors in his post, and it’s not exactly internet hypertexting, but it is clearly not the singular absorption in a text that we’ve come to associate with the word “reading.” “Reading” is not just the all-encompassing absorption that I’ve come to treasure and long for in great novels and poems, or even in great and well-written arguments. Indeed, I judge books by whether they can provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless, “Reading” is many things.

But to recognize this is not exactly the same thing as saying “so what” to the slow ascendancy of audiobooks, and the sense that books, if they are to be read at all, will be read as part of a great multi-tasking universe that we now must live in. Instead, I think we need to ask what good things have been gained by the forms of intensive reading that Scott and I and others in the cult of book lovers have come to affirm as the highest form of reading. What is lost or missing if a person or a culture becomes incapable of participating in this kind of reading.

By the same token, we should ask what kinds of things are gained by audiobooks as a form of experience, even if I don’t want to call it a form of reading. I’ve spent some time recently browsing around Librivox.org, which I’ll probably blog about more extensively in a future post. It’s fair to say that a lot of it turns absolutely wonderful literature into mush, the equivalent of listening to your eight-year-old niece play Beethoven on the violin. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some few of the readers on that service bring poetry alive for me in a way quite different than absorption in silence with the printed page. As I suggested the other day, I found Justin Brett’s renditions of Jabberwocky and Dover Beach, poems I mostly skim over when finding them in a book or on the web, absolutely thrilling, and I wanted to listen to everything I could possibly find that he had read.

This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading.

This raises necessary questions about the relationship between reader and listener. Could we tolerate a culture in which, like the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, reading is for the elite few while the rest of us listen or try to listen. At the mercy and good will of the literate elite—to say nothing of their abilities and deficiencies as oral interpreters of the works at hand.

More later

Reading Humour (No Smiling Allowed)

The Librarian And Information Science News blog called my attention back to The Onion, which I used to read religiously, but haven’t been back to in a number of years. Once there I found some really hysterical stuff on reading that they’ve put out over the last few years. Some excerpts of the better articles I ran across in just the first fifty or so articles out of about 500 the search engine called up are below. A few laughs for sure, but I’m glad to see that The Onion is still using the laughter for some thoughtful cultural commentary.

Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book
January 19, 2008 | Issue 44•03

GREENWOOD, IN—Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be. Yet, there’s more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer has recently finished reading a book.

Even outdoors, Meyer can’t seem to think of anything better to do than flip through some American classic.

Yes, the whole thing.

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Even more bizarre, Meyer is believed to have done most of his reading during his spare time—time when the outwardly healthy and stable resident could have literally been doing anything else, be it aimlessly surfing the Internet, taking a nap, or simply just staring at his bedroom wall.

“It’d be nice to read it again at some point,” Meyer continued, as if that were a perfectly natural thing to say.

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According to behavioral psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Schulz, Meyer’s reading of entire books is abnormal and may be indicative of a more serious obsession with reading.

“Instead of just zoning out during a bus ride or spending hour after hour watching YouTube videos at night, Mr. Meyer, unlike most healthy males, looks to books for gratification,” Schulz said. “Really, it’s a classic case of deviant behavior.”

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As bizarre as it may seem, Meyer isn’t alone. Once a month, he and several other Greenwood residents reportedly gather at night not only to read books all the way through, but also to discuss them at length.

“I don’t know, it’s like this weird ‘book club’ they’re all a part of,” said Brian Cummings, a longtime coworker and friend of Meyer’s. “Seriously, what a bunch of freaks.”:

Comment: I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that recognizes reading is deeply related to deviant psychological profiles. See my post on this very subject.

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Reading-Is-Fundamentalists Slaughter 52 Illiterates
October 29, 1997 | Issue 32•13

ROCKVILLE, MD—Militant pro-literacy terrorists struck here Friday night, as a pipe bomb exploded at Rockville Adult Learning Annex, killing 52 illiterates and injuring dozens more. Hours later, RIF, a radical reading-is-fundamentalist terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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According to the group’s 900-page manifesto, RIF is committed to fighting illiteracy by “first-hand targeting of illiterates.” The manifesto also outlines a three-point plan to achieve its goals by “speaking to schoolchildren about the importance of reading, lobbying Congress for increased funding for literacy-awareness programs, and banishing illiterates to the very bowels of Hell.”

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In addition to using terror, RIF has sought to eradicate illiteracy via a series of spots airing on Saturday-morning television, in which a hooded, armed representative of the faction warns children to read “as if your life depends on it—for it does.” The group has also distributed videotapes to over 3,700 U.S. elementary schools featuring footage of abducted illiterates being shot in the back of the head by RIF members, followed by a music video, “Reading Is Where It’s At,” starring the group’s mascot, Pages The Rappin’ Raccoon.

Comment: Little known fact. My blog is a front for the RIF. We’ve merely been in hiding for the past seven years, lulling illiterates into a false sense of security as they descend in to corruption through non-reading. Somewhat like Islamic terrorists who are largely lead by disaffected members of the elite who have been educated in Western societies, RIF is made up of dedicated readers who once worked for Microsoft and Electornic Arts Incorporated , but then found themselves dismayed at the corruption of the technological world around them and longed for a resurrected and glorified literacy. Well known but as yet unidentified members of our group include John Updike, Doris Lessing, Michael Dirda, and many others who keep Barnes and Nobles in business.

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Books Don’t Take You Anywhere
December 16, 1997 | Issue 32•19

WASHINGTON, DC—A study released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that, contrary to the longtime claims of librarians and teachers, books do not take you anywhere.

“For years, countless educators have asserted that books give readers a chance to journey to exotic, far-off lands and meet strange, exciting new people,” Education Secretary Richard Riley told reporters. “We have found this is simply not the case.”

Comment: As I’ve been saying. PhotoSynth is better anyway.

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Area Man Well-Versed In First Thirds Of Great Literature
April 27, 2005 | Issue 41•17

KANSAS CITY, MO—Malcolm Seward is a 38-year-old commercial kitchen designer, baseball fan, and avid supporter of public radio, but he said there’s nothing he likes better than hunkering down in a comfortable chair, cracking open a brand-new copy of one of the world’s literary classics, and reading the first 100 pages or so.

“Listen, I’m no book snob,” said Seward, settled into his favorite reading chair and running his hand over a nearly half-well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. “It’s just that I love cracking the binding on a truly good book and reading until I drift off. I’d say it’s something I do two or three times a week.”

Seward, whose bookshelves house over 500 well-regarded and eagerly begun novels, developed his voracious appetite for starting books at a young age.

Comment: Pierre Bayard’s Ideal Reader. See my post on this topic.

Seriously though–who among us does not have to confess that we start or otherwise partially read a great many more books than we actually finish. On my list of books I have not yet finished (and am unlikely ever to do so)

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke–I know it’s supposed to be a masterpiece, but, frankly, after 100 pages, I didn’t care. I’ll wait for the movie.

Anything by Alice Walker since Possessing the Secret of Joy–Does this really need explanation? I’ve even written essays on the woman and can’t bring myself to open her books anymore. The sad fact is that she was a writer worth listening to before she decided it was more important to be a prophet who sounds vaguely like Shirley McLane.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot–I tried to read this through DailyLit.com. I did. I really truly did. I got tired of trying to find deleted emails that would remind me who these characters were again. I finally decided the characters weren’t worth the effort. I’ll probably try again, both with Dostoevsky and with DailyLit, though not both at the same time.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz–I’m ashamed to admit it, but yes. I’ve started this book at least a dozen times and am bored to tears every single time. Perhaps it’s not her fault. I think Beloved is one of the two or three great novels of the 20th century. Everything since is disappointing even when it’s good. Felt this way about both Paradise and Love. “Good book,” I’d say to myself, “but it’s no Beloved.” Actually, it may be that I finished Jazz at some point. I think I forced myself, but I honestly can’t remember anything about it. In Pierre Bayard’s universe, I may as well not have read it.

Miscellany: More Literary Politics, Teleread.org, arbiters of celebrity, Technomyth 101

Stephen King, Kingmaker?

The literary sweepstakes continue. News reports tell us that Stephen King has thrown his very considerable weight behind Obama.

This may be a good thing. Barack’s rather weighty reading list, his endorsement by His Weirdness Michael Chabon and by Her Highness Oprah Winfrey, and his rather stunning eloquence have left him in distinct danger of not being pegged as a “regular guy.”

Given that I doubt Obama is going to be out stomping through a field with a 12 gauge in his hand, it’s probably a good thing that a literary celebrity known for mayhem, murder and mystery has his back. Stephen King is the everyman’s literary favorite, and Obama doesn’t even have to read him. (Personal aside: I think King is one of the most interesting and bizarre self-reflexive writers on the pathologies of writing and reading. I hope to have a chapter on him in the book I am currently fantasizing about).

Teleread makes me a star.

Teleread.org’s David Rothman has proven once again why he is one of the smartest people out there writing about the current state of digital books and literature. Primarily because he gave my blog about the pathologization of solitude and its effect on reading a big plug. My blog stats—not that I pay ANY attention to them–nearly doubled. Nice to get in to double figures (heh, heh).

Seriously though, there are literally thousands of sites out there devoted to books and reading in one way or another, many of them very good. So I have been pretty choosey about what I put on my blogroll—only the things about books and reading I actually bother to read regularly set alongside a few close friends who write about various and sundry. Teleread is, I think, one of the best sites for trying to think through—and listen to others think through—the issues and news surrounding e-books and digital literacy generally. There seems to be a sensible assumption that reading books online is not going away, but the site isn’t clogged with folks I sometimes derisively call digital utopians. There’s an effort to be self-critical, and comments that question ruling assumptions about digital books or internet culture generally are welcome. It’s very much worth a look.

Techno myths go to school.

In his most recent blog, Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the huge gap between the mythology that kids can now basically teach themselves on the internet and the actual facts about kids ability to judge and assimilate online materials. He cites an ETS study that gives a rather grim picture of students ability to sort through the waves of things they find on the net:

The report concluded: “Few test takers demonstrated key ICT literacy skills” (ICT is short for Information and Communications Technology). Only 35 percent of the subjects could narrow an overly broad search properly, and only 40 percent of them chose the right terms to tailor a search effectively. In constructing a slide presentation, only 12 percent of them stuck to relevant information.

Among some other things in the report that Bauerlein doesn’t cite is the following:

When asked to evaluate a set of
Web sites for objectivity, authority and timeliness . . .

– 52% judged the objectivity of the sites correctly
– 65% judged the authority of the sites correctly
– 72% judged the timeliness of the site correctly
– Overall, only 49% of test-takers identified the one
website that met all criteria

Even allowing for some margin of error, it still seems we’re a good ways away from the possibility of doing away with teachers entirely. And of course, this says very little about the ability of students to interpret and assimilate such materials into writing of their own—something that the testimony of writing in intro composition classes suggests might be very dismal indeed.

This speaks again to my general sense that the argument offered by digital utopians that people are reading just as much as ever, they’re just reading on the web, isn’t really an argument, it’s a platitude. We need to be thinking about what students are reading, how they are reading it, in what contexts, and how they put that reading to use. We would then be in a better place to judge what we are gaining and losing by the fact that students are no longer reading or wanting to read traditional long form texts.