Reading and listening

Yesterday’s post about Eye in the Sky reminded me of a subject that interests me, which is the difference between reading a book on paper, and listening to an audiobook.

I certainly wouldn’t say the audiobook experience is the same as, or even equivalent to, the experience of reading words on a page. There’s a difference for sure, a difference in how the information is received by the reader or listener’s brain. I’d say one’s attention is more likely to drift while listening, especially if you’re listening while driving or riding the bus, than while you’re reading a book, especially if you’re reading while relatively undisturbed. For that reason there are certain kinds of books — instructional material, or literature with a strongly poetic, ornate style — that I wouldn’t try to listen to, as opposed to reading.

Audiobooks are great for straightforward non-fiction like biographies, or for fiction in the realm of Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Tom Clancy.

Another difference between the two is that with audiobooks, the quality of the reader (I mean, the voice actor doing the reading of the book for the recording) makes such a huge difference in how it comes across. I listened to a Harlan Ellison reading of Ursula LeGuin’s first Earthsea book, and Ellison’s silly voice antics completely ruined it. Likewise, Stephen King reading one of his own Dark Tower books was very distracting. Other readers, like John Slattery who read Stephen King’s Duma Key, do a great job conveying difference voice qualities for different characters’ dialog, and also manage to spit out the words of complex sentences in a way that helps you decode them while you listen. With poorly-read books I often get the impression that the reader didn’t really know how to parse the sentence and was just speaking the words in sequence, without emphasis.

Before I started reading audiobooks, I always looked down my nose at the. I considered them kind of a half-assed way to consume a book, a reading alternative for semi-literates. Now, especially since I have a fairly long commute, and since I have nowhere near as much real reading time as I would like, I very much value the extra “story time.”

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