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Listening to a Book Vs. Reading It

There's an interesting article by Art Edwards in (at?) Quillette about the difference between reading a book and hearing it read: Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks. It's rather long for online reading, but worthwhile if you're interested. The author wonders whether listening to a book really counts:

The one constant of my reading life is that I always want to read more. If audiobooks offered me nothing else, they offered me that.

Or did they? Was I reading these books? I didn’t know. A search online revealed a piece on the subject quoting Daniel Willingham, a psychologist from the University of Virginia and author of 2017’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads: “What you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.” In other words, one’s ability to listen well to an audiobook corresponds directly to one’s ability to read well—the issue is largely a matter of personal preference.

And preference is strongly affected by, so to speak, competence. The writer does most of his listening while driving, some of it involving long and fairly demanding non-fiction, and feels that he has understood these more or less as he would have done if he had read them. I could not do that. Not only would I not absorb the book, I would find the whole process unpleasant. I've often suspected myself of having a mild case of attention deficit disorder, though I think that would be an overly dramatic way of saying simply that my powers of concentration are low. (I think I'll just put the question of basic intelligence aside.) When I read something very complex, I have to make a more or less continual effort to keep my mind on it, even if I'm sitting on the couch at home with nothing and no one to distract me, and frequently have to re-read a sentence or a paragraph. It's a problem even with less demanding fiction, such as murder mysteries. 

And while driving? No, impossible, not to be considered. Of course I would not read some of the stuff this guy reads anyway. Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty? On the face of it, unreadable in any case, even if it were not 800 pages long. But twenty-five hours on twenty CDs, while driving? I would only do it for a substantial hourly wage and on the condition that no one would ever ask me to demonstrate that I had understood it. 

I can't help wondering if this fellow is a hazard on the highway when listening to such things. I find that any driving conditions much more demanding than continuing straight on a rural interstate with light traffic disrupt my listening. It's strictly fiction for me when driving, and it can't be very densely written. Even under the best conditions, it happens fairly often that I realize I've missed something--or, possibly even stronger evidence of distraction, am not sure whether I missed something or not--and have to back up for half a minute or so. But then, as I say, I'm easily distracted. 

Just a couple of weeks ago I was making one of my fairly frequent drives to north Alabama and back, a 350-mile trip that takes at least five and a half hours (each way). I had borrowed two audio books from the local library, The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell and Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman. The latter was meant as a sort of fallback, something I knew I would enjoy, in case the former was unsatisfactory in some way. And that turned out to be the case. I started the Rendell book. It opens with a gathering of people and immediately introduces a half-dozen or so characters. I was already somewhat distracted by having had several errands to run before I hit the road, and made the mistake of starting the book before I was out on I-65. I immediately had trouble getting the characters straight, and switched to the Hillerman (not his best, by the way, but I enjoyed it, as always).

But apart from my own limitations as to what can be enjoyably listened to I certainly agree with the author that listening to a well-performed book can actually be a richer experience than reading it. I mentioned one such last fall, Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair (see this post). There have been a number of others: Lewis's "space trilogy," Brideshead Revisited, several of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, various English mysteries. You'll note the common thread of Englishness in all these. I'm not sure whether it's the gifts of the actors doing the reading, their ability to voice characters differently and effectively, or just the fact that they aren't reading in the colorless voice which is what I get when I read them in print. Mostly the former, I think. I can't offhand think of any American books read by Americans that gave me quite the same  striking coming-alive sense as the English ones.

On the other hand, as the Quillette writer also notes, a reader you don't like can spoil or at least get in the way of your enjoyment of a book. There was an element of that in my reaction to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And on another recent trip I listened to a thriller by Lee Child (Night School), and although I found the book entertaining enough for the most part, the reader had some mannerisms that I found annoying enough to discourage me from choosing anything else by that author read by that reader. Though now that I think of it, it was also this book that caused me to write a brief blog post complaining about cringey sex scenes in novels.


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I only rarely do audiobooks, and when I do they are invariably of the "lighter" variety. My biggest issue with them is the fact that if your mind does wander and you miss something you may be completely oblivious to that fact, and that if you do notice it, it's not easy to go back and simply "reread" the bit that you missed. Hence for me, on those occasions where I do choose to do an audiobook while driving, it'll be something for which undivided attention isn't necessary. Thus Wodehouse is a favorite, and also "true crime" non-fiction, if I'm in the mood for something more serious. For instance, I remember a drive to Michigan on which I listened to a book about the O.J. Simpson trial, and I also listened to one about that famous case where a well-known doctor killed his family, but set it up to look like an intruder had done it, even going so far as to injure himself to make it appear real.

Rob G, that should like a plot from Columbo


I hate phones.

It was a famous case from the 70's. The doctor's name was Jeffrey McDonald. He tried to pass it off as a Manson Family-type home invasion.

I remember that, vaguely. He was eventually convicted, wasn't he? I also think the same basic device has been used in more than one fictional crime drama.

"I hate phones." Auto-correct must be watched carefully and kept on a short leash.

I have a definite problem with listening to a plot while driving - I find myself having trouble driving! So I can really only listen to non-fiction, and as a result I instead just go for music as the best thing to drive to, with occasional radio news or NPR show.
But I know people that are always "reading" books, even as they just commute a few miles back and forth from work each day. My powers of concentration are just not there to be able to do this, and especially in city traffic.
It's just nice to hold a book, I even have issues with a reading device, though I do use one on trips mainly.

I'm happy to hear that someone else has the distraction problem, but surprised that it has the opposite practical effect for you: preferring non-fiction. I kind of got hooked on listening to books instead of music on these long drives because frequently my wife is with me and she prefers books. Especially as opposed to the music I would listen to. :-) I have on occasion listened to podcasts, and I can do that. It's not non-fiction per se that's my problem, just non-fiction that requires some effort to understand.

I really don't much enjoy reading a book on a device. In that one respect I'm ok with being dismissed as an old person who can't deal with technology.

Also I find that I get a sort of fatigue after a couple of hours or so of continual listening to music.

"He was eventually convicted, wasn't he?"

Yeah, his story had some holes from the beginning and eventually it was shown that the physical evidence didn't match it, but rather pointed to himself as the perp.

I've never tried listening to a non-fiction audiobook, but I don't think it would be very successful in my case. I would lose the thread unless the argument was very rudimentary.

On the other hand, I've had good success with some audiobooks. The Aubrey-Maturin novels narrated by Patrick Tull are excellent; the voices and the accents really helped to bring the books alive for me. Same with Wodehouse.

There are actually audiobook recordings of Finnegan's Wake! You can hear some of them on YouTube, such as this one, or this one. This is the only way I'd even consider tackling that book. There's some kind of music in it.

I sampled FW once, more than forty years ago. Close to fifty. I thought I was losing my mind and never looked at it again. Ulysses, though, is another story. I loved the book when I read it (also almost fifty years ago). My first thought when the Quillette guy said he'd listened to a recording of it (abridged) was "no way." Then, thinking about it a little more, I was intrigued. If you weren't making an effort to follow it, it might be enjoyable in a weird way.

Agreed about the Aubrey-Maturin books. But I haven't listened to any Wodehouse. I can imagine that being really good. Can you recommend one?

I think the only audiobook I've ever listened to is Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf. Even the kids enjoyed it.
We are much more likely to have someone in the car reading aloud than to have an audiobook. It's easy to interrupt for clarification or discussion and it doesn't require any particular technology in the car (or boat, or park bench, ...). This past week, we went camping and I read to my husband the first part of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Incidentally, Maclin, I think you would find it very interesting.

I'm not sure it makes sense, but I feel that someone other than the author reading an audiobook introduces a separation that isn't there when reading. I don't want someone standing between me and the words. The audio books (or excerpts or newsletters) i have really enjoyed have been read by the author. I have some records of Tolkien reading excerpts from his books, some of which are pretty good, some of which are great ("Riddles in the Dark" from The Hobbit is the best). I listened to some short stories by Niel Gaiman, read by the author, which were very good.

AS i am writing this, i realize that it is strange that I resist hearing someone besides the author read a book. Some of the books that are most dear to me were read to me by my father (which I grant is a special case).

"someone other than the author reading an audiobook introduces a separation that isn't there when reading"

I guess that's true in a strict sense, but it doesn't strike me as a problem. When I read I'm not necessarily hearing it as I would in the author's voice. Definitely not, in fact. I mean, apart from the physical voice, the actual sound, I don't know how he or she would handle all the timing, rhythms, pitch, volume, and so on.

I've never read anything by Neil Gaiman though he seems to be almost universally loved.

I think I've heard of that Lear book, Anne-Marie. I don't remember the name but I've seen references to Plenty Coups on the American Conservative site, and seems likely that it would have been in relation to that book.

I like Tolkien's Beowulf better than Heaney's. At least I think I do--I read them years apart. I'm surprised children would pay attention.

The only "serious" book I've ever listened to on audiobook is Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, but I had already read it at least twice in book form and was familiar with the content. I would not suggest tackling it as an audiobook first time 'round. I have two versions, the better of which is on cassette by a reader named Walter Zimmerman. It does not appear to have ever been put out on CD, and I've toyed with the idea of paying someone to do that for me. The actual CD version I have is by George Guidall, and it's okay, but not as good as the Zimmerman, mainly because the book is in first person, and Zimmerman comes across as closer to the actual age of the narrator, while Guidall seems older.

I have a number of old Wodehouse cassettes and they're all read by Alexander Spencer, who is very good. As they were published by Borders I imagine they're out of print, and I'm not sure CD versions were ever available. The CD's of Wodehouse that are currently prominent seem to all be read by either Martin Jarvis or Jonathan Cecil. Haven't heard either of them yet.

I have been listening to Finnegans Wake on Audible. I do so with the book in my lap following along. The reader is Irish, of course, and it is very pleasant to listen to him and follow along though I can only do so for about 10 pages at a time.

This is a serious question: what is there to follow? My memory is that it approached gibberish, but with just enough to hang on to that the mind keeps trying and failing to make sense of it.

George Guidall is good with the Tony Hillerman books.

Oh, there is a string that you sort of follow along. You are correct in that a lot of it is weird words kind of strung together. I'm amazed that the reader is able to seemingly easily say everything on the page.

Without something to look at my mind wanders. I was trying a free Elizabeth Gaskill book read by Juliet Stevenson (she does quite a good job). After a while I feel like I am just listening to her voice and thinking it sounds nice. So really there is no difference between that and Finnegans Wake.

I am apparently not good at listening to books.

I'm sure you're right that there is a follow-able thread. In light of my previous experience, and the fact that at my age I'm conscious of limited time, I'm leaving FW on my list of things like skydiving that I will never in this life attempt.

My reading tends to go the other way: I can find myself having "read" a couple of paragraphs but having no idea what was in them. Kind of weird. It's like I have a reading faculty that's almost independent of my conscious mind. But listening seems to bring me back more often. Less involvement of the automatic nervous system I guess.

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