Sunday, August 28, 2005

Read (Heard) any good books lately?

Seth Godin is fascinated by audio books. (You can hear a book he wrote at He calls audible books "So linear, so multi-taskable. Precisely the opposite of a book." I've heard a lot of books myself, and the differences between reading and hearing a book fascinate me. (There are even a few books I've done both ways, and each way had its advantages.) I think Godin's "opposite" is too extreme. The word “complementary” comes to mind, because - as with foreign movies - these two ways of enjoying a book are often good for each other.

Here are some of the contrasts:

  1. When listening, you really have to concentrate. If you're not concentrating, you may never know if you miss a few key words. If you fall asleep while reading, it's much easier to back up.
  2. When listening, you proceed at the author's pace. When reading, you can slow down and speed up (or even page-turn when the suspense gets too great). I hate the way Dick Frances drives me with suspense and would always rather read his books. But for some books, going with the author's dawdle or rush is a great experience. When I read Richard Ford's Independence Day, I enjoyed it, but I really didn't 'get' it. Hearing it, and concentrating on the whole thing at the author's pace, I "read" it much better.
  3. When you read, you get to do all the imagining yourself. When you listen, the narrator is an actor - sometimes a great actor who gives you a lot you would never have thought of yourself. For example, Barbara Rosenblatt gives a superb reading of the Bridget Jones Diary books. If you liked reading them, you may still love hearing them; these might be the greatest two performances ever of an audio book. Another audio book where the reader adds a great deal to the experience is All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, read spectacularly by Anna Fields.
  4. Audio fiction is usually "voiced" even if the narrator does nothing special. That is, every speaking character gets a separate sounding voice and a bit of appropriate personality. In a book with a lot of characters, or with characters that are hard to keep straight, this can be a boon. If you're good at imagining voices and characters on your own when you read, I congratulate you; I'm not very good at that, and I appreciate the narrator's assistance. Anthony Powell's twelve volume novel, Dance to the Music of Time has around a hundred main characters that flit in and out of the books; the reader of the unabridged tapes keeps them amazingly distinct.
  5. When you read, it's much easier to jump back and forth in the book. You often have to do that for nonfiction, but in a mystery you might keep going back to page thirty where something important obviously happened that gradually makes sense later.
  6. Our audio and reading memories work differently, so what we recall from these two methods will differ.
  7. You can mark up a book while reading, for all sorts of reasons. It's a lot harder to mark up an audio book.
  8. I said you have to concentrate on audio; Seth Godin says you can multi-task. We're both right up to a point. You can sit and read, or you can wash dishes, walk, drive, rake, clean and listen. But your other task needs to be a lightweight task.
  9. I almost always read a book just the way the author wrote it, but it's a very special pleasure to hear the author narrate his or her own work. A great example is Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Listening to him read it, I realized I would have no idea how to get to the essence of it on my own. You also get something special listening to Richard Ford narrate his work. You can hear him here.

If I've just whetted your appetite for audio books, check out your local library; they may have lots of good choices.

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