Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Eyes vs. Ears

Can you read an audiobook?

Nobody would ever say "I listened to that book" if he were talking about a bundle of printed sheets, but it is common to hear people claiming to have read a book when the "reading" was done with the ears, not the eyes. A literalist would call such declarations either mistaken or disingenuous. Is she wrong?

On the one hand, why should it matter how the words get into your head if they do get there? If you're digesting the message, why does the form matter?

On the other hand, though, a modern proverb tells us that the medium is the message. While I'm not sure that that is always true, it is true that the delivery of the message changes, or at least affects, the message. So if you read an audiobook, you are probably not having the same experience as the average reader of the book. The message is changed, even if slightly. But how far can this logic work? If I read a translation of Les Miserables have I actually read Les Miserables? The medium is changed, so have I actually read the book, or have I only read an adaptation of it?

But even if the medium changes the message, it isn't clear that it's a bad change. Maybe some books are better heard than read. Some things will be easier to see on a page, others will be easier to hear. Rhythms, sarcastic nuances, inflected subtlties are better heard than read. Structural patterns are usually better when you can flip back to examine them. On the whole, I think the sentence is better heard, but the paragraph is better read.

Which is a conundrum. Which is a better way to experience a text?

I guess for me it depends on the genre. A lyrical, poetic work narrative-driven work focuses on images, and is better heard, where the imagination can give them the breath of life. But an academic, logic driven work focuses on abstractions, and is better read, where the relationships can be concretely seen.

Or am I wrong? Should books be read, plays be seen, and speeches heard, or does it not matter?


Bjorn said...

For me, a work of fiction, basically a story, is easier to recall if heard, or at least recalled as well if read. I think this has to do with the mind's ability to recognize patterns, essentially remembering certain points on the timeline of the story, and filling in the gaps. Almost like following breadcrumbs. We can often remember the lyrics of a song easily when the song is playing, even if there are no words, because it's one thing after another. Analytical work, on the other hand, depending on how it is presented, may not have a compelling story, or as simple of a flow that would lead one concept to another. It is hard enough for me to read philosophy, much less listen to it. I often need to reread paragraphs over and over again to determine my own interpretation of the meaning of the author. Trying to determine meaning while words are zipping past you would take a mind greater then my own to grasp.

No all books on science fair poorly in audiobook form. Is the author writing in a style similar to a story, with breadcrumbs leading into similar, but different concepts? Could I tell you everything that happened in the book? No way! But I remember the beginning, and if I recall that, I can tell you what happens next, and what happens after that. Well, turns out, I can retell the story, with my own embellishments added, of course.

I did take a storytelling course in college. It was one of my favorites. We are an animal which communicates much in story. What did you do today? Your answer is a story. Did you hear about what happened in Wisconsin? Your reply, if you knew what happened, could be a story.

While I do love philosophy, theology, critical thinking, and other things which give me headaches, a great vacation is a well crafted bit of fantasy.

JKC said...

I think stories are easier to read and easier to remember, but I also think they can express complex concepts more artfully and more accurately than a detailed exposition.

Take, for example, compassion. I can try to explain that it means caring for others, with all the nuances and details etc. But even better, I'll tell you a story about a guy who was assaulted and left for dead, ignored by two pious religious leaders, and then taken and cared for by a member of a hated minority group.

I like to think of a story as a living animal, and a detailed logical explanation as the dissection. No doubt you can learn a lot of important stuff, but to dissect, you have to kill.

Bjorn said...

Wow, there's violence in your poetry.

Bjorn said...

Oh, and listening to an audiobook isn't cheating!