Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Do audio books help or harm literature?"

I listen to very few audio books these days (only one so far in 2015), but I find the related question asked by Claire Armitstead in her Guardian column interesting.  As the column banner phrases it, the question boils down to this:
Reading with your ears: do audio books help or harm literature?
In other words, do audio books leave the "reader" with a better understanding of a book's contents or are audio books distracting enough to distort a book's meaning?

From the article comes varying opinions:
If you believe the literary critic Harold Bloom, it is. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” he told the New York Times. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”
...and this,
Neil Gaiman dismissed this on his blog as “just snobbery and foolishness”, adding: “I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.” 

As for myself, I've more than once turned to the audio version of a book that was proving to be a particularly unpleasant read or so long that I feared I would never get around to finishing it.  I've even read books by alternating the audio and printed versions until I was done.  And not once, have I ever considered that a book read via audio (as long, that is, as it is an unabridged version) should not count as a book "read."  

Claire Armitstead
But the bigger question is whether or not the audio book and the printed book are really the same book.  Again from my personal experience, I can say that on more than one occasion the narrater/actor of the audio book was talented enough to change positively my opinion of a book whose printed version I disliked.  So, no, I do not believe that an audio book is necessarily the same book that its printed version is.  Whether that's a good thing or not, I can't say.  I do know that when reviewing such a book I always include a statement to the effect that my rating may just be based more on the reader than on the book...or at least more heavily weighted toward the reader's talent than to the author's.  

OK.  What do you guys think about this?  Take a look at the linked column because I've only just touched on the number of possible questions concerning the relationship of audio books to literature.  You might just want to answer some questions or points I did not mention here.


  1. Audio or print it is the same book, the words are the same, it is our experience of them that is different. I have both read and listened to The Iliad and The Odyssey within a short period of each other and I must say I felt I understood the poems better and enjoyed them more when I listened. I always understand Shakespeare better when I see/hear the plat. This is not always the case but sometimes it is. In asking these audio v print questions we have to remember that before print storytelling was all audio and to say that pre-print people had a lesser understanding of stories is ridiculous really.

    1. I agree. It's all about the story and listening to stories being passed on from generation to generation is how it all started. I do believe that a reader can give a character a whole different personality or persona, though, depending on how that character is read aloud. Sometimes I am surprised by how differently an audio book character comes across to me than the same character did in print.

      But, as you say, it's the same words...same book, etc. And I don't think for a minute that audio books "damage" literature.