Reading, Listening, and Form: Or, where is literature?

Hugh Mcguire from over at Librivox (and also at hughmcguire.net) left some very good comments on a couple of my recent posts, and also posted them to an online forum over at Librivox. They’re well worth reading in their own right, as are the comments on the forum. You can see Hugh’s comments here and here, and also access the librivox forum for a variety of interesting and useful responses on the issues I’ve been taking up lately. I thought I’d go ahead and keep these up with a couple of continuing posts over the next couple of days on the issues that Hugh and the folks over at Librivox raise (at least raise for me).

When we listen to a book are we more or less experiencing the same literary phenomenon as when we read a book? In his responses earlier to me , Hugh seems to assume so (update–Hugh just sent me another post indicating this is not his position; that comment is accessible at the previous links), and certainly some of the folks in the Librivox forum state this more explicitly—in either case we’re experiencing the same literary work, yes? The reading historian and cultural critic in me—as well as the person who’s amateurishly interesting in the way language is processed in the brain—says…well…maybe. Our tendency to say “Of course it’s the same work of literature. It’s all words!” usually assumes that what is literary about literature is the content. One of the respondents in the forum is getting at something along these lines when he says what’s really important is what the words are pointing to, not the words themselves.

In other words form and media are just part of the delivery system. Who cares how it gets there, as long as it gets there, right?!

Maybe I can illustrate like this. John, Joan and Jimmy are traveling from point A on the east coast to point B on the west coast. They use a road that has a lane for cars, a lane for bicycles, and a lane for walking. John chooses to drive, Joan chooses to ride her bike, and Jimmy chooses to walk. The content theory of journeys would suggest that all three have had approximately the same experience because they have all traveled the same geographical terrain and have moved from point A to point B.

Most students of literature or linguistics would start pulling their hair out at this stage, since a basic tenet of what we do assumes that form matters. Those of us who believe in the centrality of form as well as the significance of time and context to experience would emphasize that John experienced a dramatically different journey in his car trip across country as compared to Jimmy or Joan, and not only because he got there faster. His environment was completely different, he noticed different things and processed them in different ways. A mountain that occupied a half hour of John’s attention, loomed in Jimmy’s pathway for perhaps four or five days. The mountain was a thing of beauty that John experienced from the distance of his car, while the mountain’s beauty was complicated for Jimmy by the fact that he had to walk up one side and down the other, that he worried about mountain lions rumoured to be in the hills, and by his knowledge that if it rained he was in for misery. So though the terrain is identical in one sense, we might well say these folks haven’t experienced the same thing at all.

We don’t have to assume that one journey is necessarily superior to the other—though, I don’t think the question of evaluation can be ruled out—but it’s not quite clear that John, Jimmy and Joan have experienced the same journey despite covering the same terrain. Because the delivery systems of their journies differed, the experience itself–in some sense even the terrain itself–was completely different.

Though the analogy is inexact, it seems to me that something similar applies to the journey we take through a text. It makes a difference whether we read it via scroll, papyri, book, e-book, e-mail, cell-phone, or audiobook–all methods of delivering text, of making the journey. Thus, I would say reading Huckleberry Finn and listening to Huckleberry Finn may not be the same experience delivered in different ways. I’m willing to say they might both be described as valuable cultural experiences, and we may want to even describe both experiences as literary. But it’s not clear that the same “work of literature” has been experienced regardless. In literary and in communication studies more broadly, media matters, in some respects matters at least as much as the content itself. Marshall McLuhan’s dicta that the media is the message gets at this idea. This doesn’t assume that reading is superior to listening; only that you aren’t experiencing the same literary thing when you listen as when you read.

A different take on this suggests how different media and different cultural contexts make it possible to process something as literature when it had never been literature before–which, presumably, might also mean that these same things could cease to be literature in a future cultural context (or that “literature” could cease to be a useful description for the experience of texts entirely.)

The one example I use in my earlier post is the Bible. Many parts of the Hebrew and Greek testaments were oral tradition prior to being written down. And when they were first written down they were written down on scrolls, which enable a particular kind of reading that is very different from that afforded by books. Now one way of talking about this would be to say that all of these things are merely different ways of delivering the same content. The cultural historian in me would point out that these different forms of the Bible led to and resulted in the Bible being read in very different ways and meaning very different things at different times. Protestantism is all but predicated on a particular mode of reading and receiving books that is probably unimaginable in an oral world or a world of scrolls.

(My saying things like this drives my fundamentalist brethren bonkers, but there you have it. When it comes to literature or the bible, most people are content-driven fundamentalists. A word is a word is a word is a word. It says what it means and it means what it says. And we literary theorists, poor dears, fold our hands and say, no, no its not…no, no it doesn’t).

The Bible is also a good example of the peculiar way in which media affects our understanding of what we are experiencing, and even shapes how we experience it. For instance, courses in the Bible as literature are primarily a modern development. People didn’t start talking about the Bible as a literary text until after Gutenberg; that is, right at the time when other books started taking their place alongside sacred texts as cultural authorities. Indeed, our entire concept of “literature” is really a development of the Gutenberg revolution, a result of the great mass of available things to read and the need to distinguish some things as really worth reading. Prior to Gutenberg, so few things were actually collected in to books that everything in print was, by definition, worth reading.

Thus, my qualified “maybe” to those who would say that in listening to a book you are experiencing the same “work of literature” as you experience in reading the same book. Indeed, we are already in a period that can probably usefully be described as post-literary—which includes, but means really much more than “a period when people don’t read books.” That is, we are probably in a period when the culture that needed the term “literature” to distinguish a particulary important form of cultural activity is in decline or has already passed. Ironically, though it is out of a love of “literature” that Librivox pursues its work and through which the devotees of audiobooks pursue their listening, the shift toward the aural/oral that such things signify may also point toward the end of literature as a usefully important concept in our cultural moment. And this may be so without making any judgment as to whether that is a good or bad thing. It may just be a different thing.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Reading, Listening, and Form: Or, where is literature?

  1. As an ageing person in the process of gradually losing sight and being a visual individual, I can attest that reading text and hearing text are radically different experiences. While the content is exactly the same, the delivery yields differing appreciation.
    For one, the act of reading allows for seamless progress through text, but allows for stopping, reconsidering text, analyzing form, revisiting previous parts to check detail and gradually regurgitate and ruminate on the information thus experienced.
    Listening to text does not allow for this unless one stops, rewinds (if the spoken word delivery system allows, which it does not always).
    I like your analogy very much; it makes great and perfect sense. This was wonderful opportunity for thought this Monday morning for me. Thank you! G

  2. Pingback: Just a Reminder: Audiobooks = Reading · All the Billion Other Moments (Jason Penney)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s