I have two sons, and while both are voracious readers, my younger son is severely dyslexic. Not surprisingly, when they were little, reading was a weapon in the arsenal the older one used to torture his younger brother. He’d loudly announce he’d just finished a great book, then proceed to describe the story with just enough detail to make it irresistibly appealing. When his younger brother took the bait and asked, “What happened next?,” he’d fold his arms, smile and say, “I can’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book.”
As a lifelong bookworm, writer, and mother, the idea of using books—or rather using what’s inside of them—as a weapon horrified me. So I put a stop to it by introducing my younger son to books on tape.
My older son, being a typical sibling, tried to spoil his brother’s newfound pleasure by telling him he was “cheating.”
The funny thing is, it isn’t only sibling rivals who seem to think listening to audio books is cheating. I once pulled up into a parking lot next to a woman listening to a book on tape. When I asked her the title, she hastily switched it off, blushed, and mumbled that she didn’t usually “cheat like that.” And when I suggested to a friend who was having trouble getting her daughter to read that she try audio books, she responded that she’d rather have her daughter watch the movie version of the book first.
I was floored.
Where did this notion that listening to a book is wrong come from? And how can it be that people think watching someone else’s visual interpretation of a book—including their notion of what the characters and setting look like—is equal to or better than letting the words unfurl in the mind’s eye?
I don’t know about you, but my earliest memory of a book is one that was read to me. I remember being curled up in a big armchair with my dad as I listened to him read Gulliver’s Travels. Before any of us could read, before our societies could write, we had storytellers. I find my response to books on tape—to being told a story—is almost primal. My body relaxes, my mind brain lolls back like a lazy cat in anticipation of pleasure.
Maybe that’s the problem. That listening to a story feels like pure pleasure—there’s no apparent work involved beyond listening.
Why do we assume that? Is processing information through your ears instead of your eyes really less work?
There’s no question listening to a book is a different experience from reading it—but that doesn’t make it any less educational. Several years ago, I was seriously ill—my face was partially paralyzed and the inability to close one eye completely made it difficult to read. The only book on tape in the house was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, but I found listening to the book fascinating because it made me realize that a large part of the appeal of that book is its brilliant pacing. Just as I’d think, I’m getting bored, Brown would change the narrator’s point of view, and bang—the story would take off again.
The voice of the reader can bring unexpected depth to a story. Alice Sebold’s book Lucky is about the impact of a brutal rape in college (which a police officer told her she was “lucky” to have survived) on her life. It’s a powerful novel, made even more powerful when you hear the author read it—with the emphasis on the words and phrases, the inflections, just as she heard them in her head when she was writing them down. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, as read by Lisette Lecat, is series of books that are even better when read aloud. Lecat’s lush South African accent and rolling pronunciation of words like Mma Rmotswe make the stories flow where a reader, unfamiliar with the language, might stumble. And if you’ve never heard Jim Dale read Harry Potter with all his brilliant voices and accents, then you’re missing a rare treat.
A reader can make a brilliant book better and a mediocre one more entertaining—David Sedaris’ recent Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a great example. I’m a Sedaris fan and am always excited when he has a new book out; still, these short stories are very different than his usual semi-autobiographical essays. While they’re full of his usual sharp wit, many—if not almost all—lack his usual warmth and charm. Some are downright creepy and unpleasant. Still, with readers like Elaine Stritch, Dylan Baker, Sian Phillips, and Sedaris himself, I found myself continuing to listen to a book I might otherwise have thrown against the wall.
And yes, a bad reader can kill a great book. I’m currently listening to the last book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. The reader is Carolyn McCormack, who is probably best known for playing the psychologist in the early years of the Law and Order series. A fine actress, but with a voice that seems too old, too high, too modulated for the dynamic character of 17 year-old Katniss. With all the ongoing debate about who should play the character in the movie, I’m shocked a little more thought didn’t go into who should bring her voice to life on audio . . .
Of course I still read books—in hardcover, in paperback, and on my iPad—but the way I see it, listening to them when I’m driving, or at night when my eyes are too tired to focus anymore, gives me more ways—and time—to enjoy the boundless pleasure of books.
Headphones image courtesy of andronicusmax via Flickr
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.