This ‘n That

I’m working on a little longer piece on Emerson, again, but thought I’d just put up a collection of unrelated stuff in the interim.

 

Me On Teleread

I actually don’t remember if I said anything about this, but I should have if I didn’t. Dave Rothman over at teleread.org was kind enough to ask me to blog on his space. David says he wants the perspective of a humanist to complement all the techies. He was kind enough to not say “I want someone who doesn’t know jack about technology.” In any case, my first post over there went up last week. I may have forgotten it because I posted a version of it over here as well. Still, I’m very interested in the conjunction of technology and reading, so teleread is a good place for me to further that thinking.

On Being Healthy

The Canadian Council on Learning tells us that daily reading is better for you than fiber. Oh, wait…I think we just found out that fiber doesn’t do anything for you except forestall diarrhea. (For more on diarrhea, see my completely fascinating post on this topic.) In any case, I’m happy to discover the following.

Reading each day can keep the doctor away, says a report that concludes sifting through books, newspapers and the Internet — on any topic — is the best way to boost “health literacy” skills such as deciphering pill bottles and understanding medical diagnosis.

Daily reading, not education levels, has the “single strongest effect” on the ability to acquire and process health information, the Canadian Council on Learning said Wednesday.

=====

The learning council reported Canadians aged 16 to 65, who said they read daily, scored up to 38 per cent higher than the average on the health literacy analysis.

Daily readers over 65 years old scored as much as 52 per cent higher than the average for their age.

“Although it may not be a panacea, this report makes a compelling case that reading each day helps keep the doctor away,” said the report.

I think it’s wise to have a tad bit of skepticism about stats like this. I wonder if there are correlations between regular reading and social class, for instance, and if so is the relationship to health a function of reading or a more general issue of access to health care, material resources, and knowledge itself. Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth. At this rate I am going to live a good long time. Actually, I better stop blogging because it’s definitely cutting in to my reading time. (Who am I kidding, I just don’t watch TV anymore.)

Reading More or Reading Better

A blog over at Metafilter raises the typical objections to the notion that we’re in a reading crisis. So what if we’re reading less literature; we’re reading more than ever on the web, right?! On the other hand, they also point out that Americans ability to read at all seems to be declining, pointing to the following study at the National Center for Education Statistics:

On average, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average (the mean of the 30 OECD countries) on the combined science literacy scale (489 vs. 500).

The average score for U.S. students was:

  • higher than the average score in 22 education systems (5 OECD countries and 17 non-OECD education systems)
  • lower than the average score in 22 education systems (16 OECD countries and 6 non-OECD education systems)
  • not significantly different from the score in 12 education systems (8 OECD countries and 4 non-OECD education systems)

Ummm….One big problem, guys. Science and Math literacy is not the same thing as reading and writing literacy. And so I’m not quite sure what this has to do with whether people are reading literature any more or not. Though I’m sure Dana Gioia over at the NEA would be glad to claim that reading Moby Dick helps people with their algebra. Of course, it could be that reading skills have declined so far that the folks can’t even tell what science and math literacy really is.

Links:

A number of people have been kind enough to comment about the blog or link to my blog in various ways over the past several weeks. A few of them:

Free listens: A blog of reviews about audiobooks. What a great thing. I’ve said that I wish there were more sorting and evaluating of some of the free stuff on the web. Heresy of heresies, I don’t think massing blog stats necessarily tells me much about quality. I mean, videos of Brittany Spears’ pudenda are among the most popular on the web. Does that really tell us anything…about the quality of the video, I mean. Not about the state of America… or the state of Brittany Spears body parts. I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audiobooks to see if I agree with the judgments, but I’m glad someone is taking up the flag to do such a thing.

The Reading Experience: Daniel Green has me on his blogroll, and I’ve had The Reading Experience on mine from the beginning. I think Daniel is a little narrower in his literary judgments and tastes than am I, but I admire anyone immensely who has left academe and made it on his own. His blog is always thoughtful and often provocative.

There’s Just No Telling: “Monda” has commented on my blog before, and has a lovely sight devoted to reading and writing. From what I gather she is a teacher of creative writing, who all deserve to be sainted.

Brad’s Reader: Brad lists me as an interesting read. And I didn’t even have to pay him.

There are others that I’ve missed, and I’ve got to stop somewhere in any case. So if you’ve linked to me and I’ve missed you, let me know. I’ll keep you in mind next time I do this.

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Reading, listening and memory

Pursuing some of my recent posts on the idea that listening and reading create different experiences–without making a judgment regarding superiority–a forum on myspace directed my attention to the following study from Carnegie Mellon demonstrating that listening and reading activate different parts of the brain, and especially that listening requires a great deal more working memory–what used to be called short-term memory–in order to do the semantic processing necessary for understanding.

“The brain constructs the message, and it does so differently for reading and listening. The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper,” said Carnegie Mellon Psychology Professor Marcel Just, co­author of the report that appears in this month’s issue of the journal Human Brain Mapping.

This seems to go along with my general perception in yesterday’s post that in reading to a text we are experiencing a different object of consciousness–in some sense a different work of literature–that we do when we listen to a text. I’m not exactly a phenomenologist, but we might be able to go with this to say that our experiences of texts are how they appear in consciousness. To the degree that listening and reading activate the brain differently, I would hypothesize that the conscious mind is experiencing two completely different “objects,” objects here understood to mean our mental experience of words and their meanings.

First, during reading, the right hemisphere was not as active as anticipated, which opens the possibility that there were qualitative differences inBrain image–Pars triangularis the nature of the comprehension we experience in reading versus listening. Second, while listening was taking place, there was more activation in the left ­hemisphere brain region called the pars triangularis (the triangular section), a part of Broca’s area that usually activates when there is language processing to be done or there is a requirement to maintain some verbal information in an active state (sometimes called verbal working memory). The greater amount of activation in Broca’s area suggests that there is more semantic processing and working memory storage in listening comprehension than in reading.

Because spoken language is so temporary, each sound hanging in the air for a fraction of a second, the brain is forced to immediately process or store the various parts of a spoken sentence in order to be able to mentally glue them back together in a conceptual frame that makes sense. “By contrast,” Just said, “written language provides an “external memory” where information can be re­read if necessary. But to re­play spoken language, you need a mental play­back loop, (called the articulatory­phonological loop) conveniently provided in part by Broca’s area.”

This makes a great deal of sense to me and is consonant with some other things that I’ve read about how literacy accompanies the general atrophy of personal and cultural memory. Oral cultures require much more prodigious uses of memory, and I would suspect that people who train themselves to listen well–perhaps like those who listen to audiobooks!–are also developing memory capacities. At least, following this study, the short term memory would have to become much more exercised and probably developed by the consistent effort to remember the passing sounds and having to fit them together into meaningful units of language.

(Side note along these lines, my colleague who is visually impaired has a prodigious memory of detail of what seems to me to be almost everything. By comparison, I remember vaguely that an idea is found somewhere in a particular part of a book that I underlined at one point).

Following this out, and thinking through my earlier statements that what we need is more careful consideration of what kinds of things are lost and what kinds of things are gained through certain kinds of reading (or listening), we might well say that if we are entering into what is called a secondary oral culture this could signal good things for memory.

At least this would be the case if the culture that’s developing is one that would put a high premium on listening skills. I’m not really sure that it is given the dominance of the visual on the internet and in film and television. Still, it’s and interesting idea. It would be interesting to figure out if people who listen to audiobooks in a regular and devoted fashion show more highly development memory capacity–either short or long term–than those of us who spend more time reading.

This would leave for further study the question of what reading develops in the brain. I suspect it would be something along the lines of analytical skills, but I’m not sure. It also may explain the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. Maybe we really are absent-minded because in being devoted to books our short-term memory has atrophied!

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.

Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

Ok, to get to Diarrhea, you have to read to the end of this post.

 

MORE LIBRIVOX

I got some very good comments from “Hugh” who is a poobah of some sort over at Librivox. You should go read his comments yourself at my post, “Listening as Reading,” but a couple of excerpts here since I want to think about what he has to say. (And, hey, it’s a cheap way to come up with a post when it’s late at night and I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.

Says Hugh:

“in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.”

Yes, a good thing to point out, continuous with my general observation that for the longest part of human history reading was primarily about reading aloud, not reading silently. I’m not quite sure I would go completely down the road that books in the nineteenth century were written to be read out loud. This misconstrues the case. But it is the case that they were commonly read out loud, and there was a great deal of fluidity between the oral presentation and the written. Dickens is a good representative of this fluidity. I’m not quite sure I would say Dicken’s wrote his books in order to read them out loud. He wrote them in order to get them published serially in magazines. But it is absolutely true that he often rewrote and rewrote passages over and over in order to achieve certain kinds of emotional effects in his listening audience. Thus there’s a deep connection between the orality of the word and the writtenness of the word. A fluid interchange of sorts. I still tell students they ought to read their work outloud to themselves in order to hear how things sound. This can be a good guide to the kind of rhetorical affects you are achieving.

Says Hugh again:

“-we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.

-and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:

http://ask.metafilter.com/79067/Librivox-Recommendation”

This last is very helpful, though I wish the list was more organized. I clicked through some of the recommended readings and–on the basis of very short sampling–most of them are superior to some of the detritus I’ve waded through the past few times I’ve strolled through Librivox. I wish that Librivox would provide some kind of ratings system itself–at least one that recognized the popularity of different readings–though I suspect that this would counter the dream of pure democratic participationism that drives this kind of thing on the web.

As for Librivox being primarily about the readers and not the listeners, something Hugh tells me in a second comment, I’m not so sure. (I think Hugh didn’t think it was fair of me to criticize many of the readers for being…well…Dull. Or annoying. Or both). To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording. Well, OK. But the thrill of doing so is that people will listen in, yes? I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that people might actually look at this blog, why not just keep it on my computer instead of publishing it for all the world to sneer at.

It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist. There are a lot of opera singers out there who really ought to spare the rest of us and restrict their renditions of Nessun Dorma to the safety of their shower stalls. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge them the right to perform for the world on YouTube. But if they do, I generally think we’ve got a right and responsibility to Puccini and to Pavorotti to say, “You know, that really stinks pretty badly.” There’s no inherent nobility in performing, contrary to what most Americans seem to think.

But enough. Mostly I’m on Hugh’s side here. I’m glad someone’s doing something like Librivox, even if I don’t want to listen to most of the people doing it.

 

MORE EMERSON:

I blogged a bit about Emerson today on the blog dedicated to my course on literary theory. Just a bit of that from a post I called “Emerson and the Gods of Reading”:

Along these lines, I think there’s a way in which Emerson’s notions of creative reading are embodied in the way we read now. For Emerson, reading was a threatening activity precisely because we were always tending toward submission and passivity, always on the brink of substituting someone else’s creativity or knowledge for our own. This would mean we had failed to be “The Poet” we were meant to be and in fact are if we would only realize it. Instead, reading only exists to a purpose if it inspires us to more writing of our own. Reading must always give forth in to new and different expression, or it is worthless. Reading that absorbs and doesn’t give forth in new creativity, reading that doesn’t come to an end in writing is destructive to rather than an enhancement of our humanity.

What is this if not the reading ethic of blogging. Emerson, the familiar spirit of Facebook culture. Reading for us now is only meaningful if it gives forth in self expression. Indeed, texts become primarily a means of further self-expression. I read other texts or find other materials on the internet in order to “blog” them. The verb in this sense means partly to write about them, but blogging something also connotes making it one’s own, making it an opportunity for self-expression, an opportunity to speak.

I don’t think I want to deride this outright. NPR had someone–maybe the founder of Facebook-?!-on today with a little piece on the glories of connectivity available through self-exposure. It seemed a little facile–by exposing my darkest secrets on the net I’ll be able to develop authentic relationships with people I’ve never met. Umm, maybe. If this were true, why not go expose yourself to your next door neighbor. Still, it is the case that kinds of connections are built through this incessant speaking. Ultimately, for Emerson, our seeking expression at the expense of reading was not a form of self-aggrandizement, though it’s often taken for that. It was ultimately a way of connecting to a broader world. In Emerson’s view, if all people would become The Poet they were meant to be, all the world would be saved and we would all be one. It’s ultimately a platonic evangelical Christian vision without Christ in some sense. If we’ll all individually get right with Jesus, we’ll all be one. The internet says something vaguely similar. If we would all just keep looking for ways of expressing ourselves through the texts of others, we will all be connected through what is, after all, the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but it seemed profound at the time. Parents are paying for this stuff. It better be.

 

MORE DIARRHEA

Ok, this doesn’t refer to the stinky liquid spew that this post is fast becoming. Or not only that.

I often tell my English students that there is a magazine about everything, so they can take their writing skills and find a job anywhere in the world. The last part is a department chair’s fantasy, but there really is a journal about everything in the world.

Witness “Dialogue On Diarrhea.” Yes, there is a journal covering everything you wanted to know about loose stools. Ok, I should say there used to be a journal. In the words of the web site:

Dialogue on Diarrhoea was an international newsletter on the control of diarrhoeal diseases published by Healthlink Worldwide (formerly AHRTAG), a UK-based non-governmental organisation.

The first issue was published in May 1980.The last of a total of 60 issues, during its 15 years, was published in May 1995.

Published four times a year, Dialogue on Diarrhoea offered clear, practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases. It also acted as a forum for readers to exchange ideas and share experiences.

Umm, just what kind of experiences are we sharing here exactly?

Anyway, the print newsletter is no more. And now instead we have “Dialogue On Diarrhea Online”. So the next time you have this problem, you’ll know where to head. Besides the bathroom. I mean.

And, as we think of it, doesn’t this point to the last important remaining geography in which print remains triumphant. Bathroom reading. It’s a bit tragic that the diarrheatics among us will now have to carry their Kindles to the bathroom in order to keep up on the latest and share their experiences. On the other hand, with laptop in hand they will now be able to share their experiences in a much more intimate and immediate way.

Ok, I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve now insulted all the chronic diarrhea sufferers who regularly read this blog. And none of my students will ever get an internship with this website. That’s for sure.

Final note: I thought for sure I would be the only person on WordPress who used the word “diarrhea” in a tag. No. There are hundreds of us.

Isn’t the web a wonderful place?

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

Audiobooks: Baritones do it Better

I’m having a little trouble keeping the eyelids open on humpday, so I’ll probably come back to this later. Still, I’ve been away for a couple of days, so I thought I’d ruminate for a few paragraphs.

A conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks back has had me contemplating the status of audiobooks. Conversation turned around the question of whether audiobooks constituted “reading,” an ameliorative factor to the generally dismal view of literary reading that’s been out there ever since the NEA report in 2004.

I’m not convinced, but I am intrigued by the general status of audiobooks and how they relate to the historical practices of reading and listening aloud. It’s worth saying that a characteristic of modern reading practices has idealized silent reading for oneself. Reading out loud, and worse, listening to others read, has largely been a sign of immaturity or deficiency.

But should it be? Not sure. Something I’ll have to come back to.

I recently stumbled across Librivox. Again, something I’m sure many people were already familiar with, but which seems brand new to me. Essentially an archive of open access recordings of various works of literature, the recordings done by volunteers.

Librivox has all the strengths and weaknesses of democratic webdom. I literally could not understand some of the poems I tried to listen to. Some readers sounded vaguely like adenoidal adolescents, slurred words together and substituted speed and volume for earnestness and emotion. Others started well, but seemed to get bored with the poems as they go along. It takes a lot of effort, evidently, to be sonorous and measured and musical, to have a voice worth listening to without making listeners hear the voice more than the poetry itself.

Still, I ran across Justin Brett after listening to about a half dozen recordings of Dover Beach, and immediately became a sucker for his resonant baritone and British accent. I could listen all day.

For several good recordings of Brett’s vocal work, listen to the following:

“Dover Beach”

“Jabberwocky”

“The Collar”

Is it reading? I still don’t think so, but I’ll come back to it. Is it literature? That’s an interestingly different question, that will also await another day. Is the experience of literature linked inextricably to the page, or is it in the word that the page “merely” symbolizes? Is whatever is literary about literature independent of the written word–ink or digital–just as we might think of music as essentially free of and even superior to the page upon which it is composed? I don’t think so, for now, but it’s worth thinking about.