Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Notes: Audio Books

There is a debate going on over on LibraryThing about whether listening to an audio book "counts" as reading the book. (Those who are LibraryThing members can read it here.) I think the very contention is silly. But I was surprised to find how few readers in the "Literary Snobs" group enjoyed audio books -- although maybe, given the name of the group, they were just afraid to admit it. I joined the group just for the sake of chiming in, and a few other audio book fans came forward after I did. My comments were roughly these: Am I the only one willing to come to the wholehearted defense of audio books? That surprises me, given the number of well-produced, unabridged audio books readily available. I have listened to audio books on and off all my adult life, but I really became a fan when I got an iPod a few years ago and discovered how to load audio cds from the library onto my iTunes library, then on to my iPod. I can keep 20 or more books in my purse! I still read the big majority of my books with my eyes, but there are plenty that I read with my ears. I disagree with those who say that listening to an audio book does not "count" as reading the book. An unabridged audio book is putting every single word of the book into your head, just like reading a paper book does - it is just that one way gets into your brain via your ears; the other through your eyes. But it is the same information getting to your brain - just like reading a book in Braille puts the book into your brain through your fingertips. The difference is sensory, not substantive. It is not like watching a play or a movie or listening to a radio program because an audio book is not an adaptation - it is the real book, read aloud. True, it is possible to miss parts of an audio book. But it is also possible to miss parts of a book read with your eyes. I can get distracted reading a "book book" just as easily as when I listen to a book. In some situations - on a plane, for example - listening to the book is more absorbing than trying to read a paper book. There are a couple of genres I think benefit from an audio format. First, memoirs read by the author are, in my opinion, superior to the paper format. You can hear exactly how the author intended the words to sound - you get inside the author's head. For example, I can always figure out who listened Frank McCourt read Angela's Ashes and who read it with their eyes. The first group, including me, thought the book was heartwarming and very funny. The second group thought it was heartbreaking and incredibly sad. The difference is in the cadence and inflection McCourt put into the words when he read them. Likewise, Ayaan Hirisi Ali reading her biography Infidel was mind blowing. I cannot imagine getting the same impact from the printed page. On a lighter note, I came close to abandoning David Sedaris until I listened to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and became a devoted fan. The second genre I prefer in audio is classic literature. I am listening to Crime and Punishment now. In the past few years, I have listened to, among others, Moll Flanders, Silas Marner, Hard Times, Madame Bovary, and Moby Dick. And, yes, even the passages on cetology and the meaning of "white" were entertaining when read out loud. As I have mentioned here before, I think that listening to these classics is more rewarding that reading them with my eyes. Instead of facing dense, page-long paragraphs of prose, some professional has parsed the phrasing and figured out every nuance of intonation. That, along with different voices for characters, makes some of these older books come alive. In that way, I agree with the idea that audio books are like a play - listening to them is satisfying in the same way that watching a Shakespeare play makes more sense than trying to read it on the page. So while I will continue to flip pages, you can often find me plugged into my iPod, listening to a book. And I definitely count every one of those audio books as I scratch them off my various book lists.


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