Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reading vs. Listening, The Debate Begins

I've often engaged in the age-old debate over the merits of literary adaptation. Which is better, the book or the movie? (akin to the equally inconclusive, which came first: the chicken or the egg?).

I most often side with the book as it is the book that inspires the movie to both recreate and reimagine a story that is (hopefully) worthy of being retold. An excellent book may become an excellent movie, but ultimately it is the film that must be selective when condensing the material, sacrificing character development and plot lines to trim the source material to a more manageable form. It is perhaps the television medium that is most suited for long form adaptation, although this medium has its own limitations, mainly in episodic structure and budget and time constraints.

Regardless of your opinion on the book vs. movie debate, here's a debate that you might not have heard before: reading vs. listening.

Shortly after seeing the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's controversial His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass (2007), I was chatting with a friend who was halfway through listening to the second book, The Subtle Knife, on his media player. He was expressing an interest in seeing the film but was concerned at the possibility of being disappointed with an adaptation that wasn't up to par with the books he was reading. It was here that another rather irate friend joined in on the conversation. She hadn't read the books or seen the movie, but she was very angry with our friend's use of the word reading when referring to a book on tape.

"You didn't read the book," she insisted, "you listened to it. It's not the same thing."

Although I hadn't thought about distinguishing reading a book from listening to that same book on tape, the differences in the experience of the text are indisputable. Even when the book on tape is unabridged and read word for word by a single narrator, the way you engage the material is fundamentally altered.

While reading, you are absorbed in the words and multitasking becomes virtually impossible. You see the words with your eyes, you engage with the layout of the text, consciously or subconsciously acknowledging the paragraph breaks, the emphasis on certain words. You can pace yourself, reading quickly or slowly, skimming ahead or back-tracking to re-read particularly eloquent or difficult passages.

Not only do you not have the freedom to determine the pacing while listening to a book, back-tracking or skimming ahead is more difficult to time accurately. You can't just flip back a page, you have to rewind to the precise moment or you're forced to re-listen to passages you didn't want to hear again. The choices made by narrators or voice actors cast in the roles of the characters limits the reader who may have heard them speak differently in her head. Most significantly, many people who choose to listen to books do so because they don't have the time to read. They listen as they drive, they listen as they do laundry or cook dinner, they listen as they are distracted from engaging exclusively in the text.

I've never listened to a book before, I enjoy the act of reading too much to find any reason to listen instead. Although I will acknowledge one benefit of listening. While reading has made me an excellent speller, I often find myself committing a faux pas when I mispronounce a name or a word newly added to my ever-expanding vocabulary. If only I had listened to the words instead.


AVATC said...

Hi, Val. Thanks for an interesting post. It's a topic that has come up frequently among audiobook lovers.

Not everyone listens to a book because they don't have time to read. Many people are visually-impaired and have no other way to access the material. Other people listen to audiobooks for the joy of the experience and/or to be able to read (and yes, I mean read) more books concurrently. If I listen to a book while I drive, the driving experience is more enjoyable, AND I am able to finish another book! :)

I also like to listen to books while I work out. I hang on every word and am able to enjoy my work-out without raising my heartrate to dangerous levels as I might if I were listening to fast music.

Listening to a book does not automatically mean that one is distracted or disengaged. In fact, you can be those things when reading the book for yourself.

As an audiobook narrator, I encourage you to listen to an audiobook. The narrator's job is to be true to the author's words and intent, bringing the work alive for the listener. I hope the thoughts in my blog entry about the narrator's role compel you to change your mind.

If you want recommendations of good audiobooks to hear, check out the reviews at Audiofile Magazine.

Finally, does it really matter whether you heard or physically read the book as long as you got the message it conveyed?

Best wishes for your continued success!

Karen Commins

Val said...

Hi Karen, thanks for you comment. As I have never listened to a book before, my opinion is from the perspective of someone who is physically able to read and has time to read and who is considering the pros and cons of reading versus listening for people like myself, based on the way I engage in a book and the pleasures that it gives me.

I think you have brought up some excellent reasons why someone might choose to - or only be able to - engage with the written word via an audiobook. I have recently begun working with a documentarian who makes films about and for people with disabilities, so I am aware of the efforts to make material more accessible, across all mediums. Just as books can be translated as Braille or made into audiobooks for the visually impaired or individuals who may not be able to read, films can be closed captioned for the deaf or audio described for the blind. My original post was unable to address those perspectives as of course there are many reasons why an audiobook might be the preferred - or only option - for some people.

I am very interested now, as I have begun considering the different ways of experiencing a book to try listening to one for the first time, although I wonder if I wouldn't feel as though if I was engaging in a text for the first time that I was missing out in being able to absorb the material at my own personal pace. I may choose instead to start off with a book that I have read before, one that I love as written text, to see if my experience and understanding continues to grow.



ikool said...

I enjoy this post. To add on in varies form on how listening affect our day to day life.

- word of mouth
- a truth "... Faith comes by hearing ..."
- through listening to music can set a mood

Hope you have enjoy reading this comment