To listen or to read?


I’ll admit it. I listen to books. But if I really love what I’m reading, I also buy the hard copy and at some point switch to the book itself. I can’t help defaulting to the familiar and gratifying combination of holding the object of my interest. How many times have I rested an open book on my lap and just sat there mulling and rereading a particularly rich or powerful passage. You can’t exactly do that with a Kindle—the hugging-the-book thing just doesn’t feel the same.  Putting the book down–the contact with its “real” pages–and running my mind over some extraordinary passage as if licking it clean, makes me want to write.  As for listening, it’s not that great to keep hitting the rewind button and drifting off in a reverie while driving. Yet . . . what I’ve found by listening is the same thing that people claim who have bought Kindles or any other downloading device for books: I read (hear) far more than I would otherwise.

Not long ago an article appeared in The Atlantic (with a subsequent expansion into a book) called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The essential premise was that Google, and more generally the internet (aren’t they one in the same?), were ruining our attention spans and fragmenting our ability to concentrate on longer tasks, such as those novels by George Eliot, once called “winter novels,” because they took a whole season to finish.

I don’t doubt the truth of this, because as the author pointed out from his own experience, he had lost the patience to devote to a massive classic. Breadth has replaced depth. Coverage has become the operable principal. In any internet reading, with all its embedded linkage and available apps, one naturally becomes a jumpy rabbit. By checking out all those links you believe you’re actually gaining a more comprehensive view and not missing anything. Well, certainly sitting down and investing the time to read Moby Dick would make you think you’re missing something. Such dedication to a single book would drive a multi-tasker crazy. And the point is that we’ve all become more multi-taskers than concentrators. Surfing the internet—scanning—has become the means of not losing your place in the world. Quickness means you’re informed. Pausing becomes a liability. And the race to keep up with–and the challenge to prioritize–the information out there creates its own anxiety, supplanting concentration with an urgency to stay aware: data replaces what used to be called knowledge.

So, given this, what hope is there for someone to spend his time reading Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov, two books that I now admit, alas, I did not read. I listened to all 25 and 35 hours respectively. Let’s put aside what this says about how much time I spend in my car. My main concern here is not whether I actually found a way to enforce my paying attention to these books that I otherwise would never have “read” (or reread), because I was too impatient or Googlized or tired and hyper to sit still without a windshield in front of me for that long. I’m interested in what is lost or gained in the transaction, just as what’s lost or gained in the transformation of any material from one medium to another: books to film, or these days from one “carrier” to another: iPod, iPad, Kindle, cellphone, PC, radio, and no doubt soon to be, hologram.

This all comes down to voice. I cannot, for instance, get over that despite my best efforts to be open, the reader of the audio book of Joyce’s Dubliners when doing Gretta’s voice in “The Dead” sounds like Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. Perhaps if I hadn’t read the story (and taught it) at least thirty times, I could be more generous. Part of the problem is that once you hear a voice in your head, that is, the voice as translated from the page to your ear by your own apperception of the syntax, rhythm, and spatial layout, it’s hard not to resist the vocalizing as a false impersonation, especially if you’ve heard that voice so distinctly (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden in Catcher, Humbert Humbert in Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”) to site three well-known narrators). There’s probably a good reason why Salinger never wanted Holden to appear on stage or screen and refused to sell the rights to the novel. But even then, when a book is made into a film or play it’s adapted, changed, and the actors have to flesh out a director’s vision of the characters and story. In hearing someone read a work verbatim, you have no modification, just that reader’s voice, and you either take to it or not. It can and often does grow on you.

But it can also grate.

Jennifer’s Egan’s admirable novel, A Visit from the Good Squad, has a female reader for its entirety and its wide cast of characters. One can’t help but be compelled by the character Sasha channeled in the opening chapter. Sasha, a kleptomaniac, finds the right combination of sultriness and vulnerability in the audio reader’s confessional if guarded rendering of her. The male characters are another story; they sound too much alike, and they sound too much like slackers or dudes with issues. What gives, say, Sasha mystery, subtlety, and allure becomes a deficit when the reader speaks on behalf of another character Benny, who in his dialogue cannot escape a whiny flatness that isn’t in the well-developed character himself. And therein lies the problem: reading to yourself you hear the repository of female or male voices long accumulated in your consciousness. Hearing that same character read to you, the voice is no longer being filtered through your experience, nor created by you in conjunction with the author: it’s the audio reader’s interpretation alone.

You might get the impression from these examples above that the problem is gender: female doing male parts, or males doing female ones. But I never got used to the celebrated Flo Gibson’s reading of James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I know I was supposed to find it masterful—Flo, who died recently, was known as the grande dame of audio recordings—but frankly I found it overweening, or maybe that was James himself.

In any case, the audio reader’s voice must be wrestled with a bit at first, especially to integrate it with the author’s. Try reading your own work aloud if you want to get a sense of this (and catch mistakes and lumpy prose while you’re at it). You supplant as much as echo the sound already there with a different version of the intimate words you first heard in your own mind. One’s eyes you soon come to realize produce a sound aligned with silence. The oral version stamps its claim on the words and registers its stake more bluntly in the brain.

On the other hand, when it works, it’s simply lovely. I couldn’t get enough of the perfectly matched narrator and the audio reader in Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. Here you have power and bitterness, yearning and resignation in the reader’s presentation, the reader in tune with the darker narrative but allowing just enough light in her voice to keep breath in the tale. Likewise, the reader of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has a bit of English propriety in her voice, mixed with a dreaminess appropriate to a story of an emotionally wounded clone created for her consumptive value in a futuristic society. And the reader of Marilyn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping tells the story with such a pitch-perfect combination of composure, retrospection and keen immediacy that you can easily juxtapose the simplicity of a sentence like “Lucille turned out the lights and we sat at the kitchen table, trying to name the states of the union” with a poetic nugget such as, “Bones, bones, I thought, in a fine sheath of Sunday gloves.”

It’s this very elasticity of voice, as in the last example, that the author must make work on the page but also the audio reader must capture without either over dramatizing or missing nuance and subtlety. Resonance itself is a different animal when read than spoken, and the delicateness of that task, which authors tirelessly work at to convey without ruining its effect by being too obscure or direct, can so easily be pummeled by poor spoken expression. Rhythm on the page, for instance, is not just choosing a speed of speaking: commas and semicolons don’t translate so easily. They are the writer’s silent markings of pacing and thought. Sound unifies a work just as much as sense, perhaps even more so in a literary work where content is an equal partner with style, and the latter not just in the service of the former. Voice for a writer is more directly—and intimately—associated with interiority than exteriority. After all, a writer hears the sound of the words in her head when she puts them down and may never speak them aloud. And even when one gives a public reading of a work, the overlay is of this original and more subterranean expression that was first heard in the composing. As one writer has said, to know the voice is to follow a whisper.

In a novel such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the audio can’t reproduce the explosion of graphics, illustrations, and photographs: Oskar Black’s business card (inventor, jewelery designer, jewelry fabricator and fourteen other professions); the pages of colors in opposing colored ink; the single line of “I’m sorry” followed by “I’m still sorry” on the next page surrounded by a sea of white space; the interview format or the block paragraphing or the kinetic cluster of dialogue between Oskar and his therapist Dr. Fein; all the sheer inventive funness, and often sad presentation, of a crazy quilt of visuals, the most striking being the much-noted novel’s end pages that can be flipped forward to move a falling body up the World Trade Center or backward to poignantly see it dropping down. In one sense, what Foer does with Extremely Loud is exploit the novel’s bookness, stretching the use of the printed page. The audio version meanwhile has three different readers for different character parts and does a fairly good job of doing the book justice (let’s not even get into how faraway the movie gets). But you can’t both read this book and listen to it and not expect to have two different encounters. The textual innovations, the graphic elements create an even greater division between reading and listening, and one must make the choice of which experience you desire more, unless you’re willing (and have the time) to do both.

I for one have resigned myself to stop fighting the changing technology of the book and just embrace all its forms, drawing the line at any abridgment of the text—that is messing with the words themselves. In their nakedness, they alone remain supreme.




  • steeleburton

    >I don't think I'll ever be able to read The Dead again without hearing Greta voiced by Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire! But I also will never forget your saying in workshop that the story "bleeds backward." Such a great way to encapsulate what Joyce does in that story, and what we also strive to do. I admit I used the phrase without attributing it to you last night but only because I didn't want to appear to be flaunting my education.