I’ve been reading about books, physical books, recently (Greetham and Ong) and about the act of reading (Ong, Birkerts). It’s made me think even more about the ways that we interact physically and physiologically with our texts. Ong and Birkerts, in particular, made me think about different ways that we experience books. If we listen to an audiobook, how does that differ from reading out loud to our selves or from having a book read to us? Reading aloud to an audience is an interactive performance in a way that audiobooks are not (live theater versus filmed). As reader, you can respond to your audience’s discomfort or lack of attention or increased attention to help convey meaning. On the other hand, audiobooks have the luxury of retakes if something’s not right and the reader cannot be distracted by the audience. As audience however, how do we receive these performances? Is it more meaningful that the performance is live? I’m curious whether, for example, people remember more of a book that’s read aloud to them in person (by a stranger) than from an audiobook.

I emphasize stranger because in practice in our society reading books aloud to one another is commonly an intimate act. A prime example is of a parent reading to a child. My mother read to me and my brother at bedtime well after the age that we’d started reading. The Hobbit, for me, was first an oral work (with pictures shared) and only later one that I read as text on a page.  Since we would have happily made her read all night long, my mother had to pick stopping points in the books that we read. Chapter endings were the logical choice, both structurally (most authors end chapters with some kind of intermediate conclusion, even if it’s a cliff-hanger) and psychologically in a way that even a pre-literate[1] child can understand (there’s white space, a break in the text; it’s okay to stop reading here). That rhythm of reading is deeply part of me even now, and I will find myself falling asleep, eyes crossing and book drooping, because I have to finish the chapter before I can set a book aside.  Intellectually, I know that I’m not getting much from reading when I’m that groggy. But if I’m not at that “official” stopping point, it’s hard for me to stop.

Contrast that experience with audiobooks, or with that of my young nephew, who’s experiencing many of his books through the medium of an iPad. On an audiobook, there is usually a delay, a pause, at the end of a chapter. It is not a long one, however, since silence loses the audience’s attention. Many electronic devices (whether computers or CD players) capture the exact location that you stop or pause and without any intervention from you beyond the act that stops it. You do not have to mark the text with a bookmark or dogear a page to get to the place that you were. Chapter breaks become less meaningful, unless the author (or possibly reader) manages to build in an obvious structural break to suggest stopping here rather than there.  In a play, the end of one act is not always all that different from the end of a scene, and yet we usually break our reading at the ends of acts.

It is hard to slow down reading when you have become accustomed or trained to read quickly and to read to completion, even if that completion is only a chapter or an act. I have to pay attention to unconcious speeding up and practice setting a work aside uncomplete, so that I can pay as much attention to the ends as the beginnings and middles.



[1] The word that came to mind was “pre-literate” and after hesitating, I left it. I’ll define it as unable to independently get meaning from words on a page, even though we knew words and knew that they had meaning.)


1 Comment

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One response to “Reading

  1. lmaruca

    Your question about live vs recorded reading is an interesting one, and very Ongian, since he focuses on the “secondary orality” of print culture. I’m going to bypass the question of technology vs the body for now. though, to think about the body as a technology. I want to focus on the perhaps philosophically minor yet realistically crucial point of the reader’s voice–specifically, its professionalism or lack thereof. Trained actors have trained voices, and a good audiobook performance has value added to the author’s words (in this sense we might see an audiobook novel like recorded drama). I’ve heard some bad ones in my time. Unfortunately, Madeline L’Engle’s reading of A Wrinkle in Time, in a voice that managed somehow to be shrill and raspy at the same time, ruined that classic for my son. On the other hand, Phillip Pullman is a surprisingly accomplished voice artist, animating the characters his “His Dark Materials” series as if it were a full cast recording. It’s rare that an author can pull that off with his/her own text, however. I much prefer novels to be mediated through someone who knows his/her stuff–my current favorite is Roy Dotrice’s presentation (I should say mediation) of George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire series. He manages to consistently represent the the voices of dozens of characters through thousands of pages. What’s my point? The voice itself is a medium, and different voices represent the text differently, giving it different meanings and emphasis. Of course, recording this voice, as you point out, adds many more layers of mediation, from the way it’s edited to the way it’s packaged and sold (or given away on LibriVox).

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