Audio, Electric, and Paper…

Prompted by a deep, thought-provoking Twitter conversation, I felt the need to articulate my value of books with more than 140 characters.

A Twitter-friend had posted something about breaking her reading slump by listening to an audio book. I replied, “That’s like walking to break a running slump.” Although I was originally being sarcastic, it opened up a discussion on audio books and their comparison to normal, paper-bound books.

My Twitter-friend Jessie loves literature – regular books, audio books, e-books; doesn’t matter. But I’m much different. I read my first novel in Mrs. Gaffney’s fifth grade class and I vividly remember the experience. Grabbing the worn, golden-trimmed book from Mrs. G’s basket, I would crawl under a table to kind of close everyone else out. I still remember the scent and texture of the book as I turned the pages and its smell wafted up to my nose.

Whenever I’m out shopping for a new book, the first thing I always do – no matter what the book is about – is flip and sniff the pages. It’s not quite a deal-breaker because I’ve read some foul-smelling books that turned out to have great stories within. But it does matter. When I opened my brother’s Christmas gift to me last year, however, I didn’t even think about the full experience I have with books. What was that gift? A Kindle.

I love my Kindle and I love reading from it. Even though it doesn’t have the same texture and smell that paper-bound books do, it doesn’t hurt my eyes like my computer screen, it’s light, and I have about 20 books in one place. I wish my textbooks could have come in e-book format. It would have saved a lot of back pain last winter.

Audio books are almost completely different, though. Paper-bound and electric books offer something that audio books don’t: They enable the reader to give their own voice to the narrator. What do I mean by this? When I read A River Runs Through It, I imagined the narrator to have a soft but stern voice with a slight southern twang. Maybe I was wrong for assuming people from Minnesota would have a slight southern accent, but that’s how I imagined it. And yet when I watched the movie, I was thrown by the narrator’s accent. When I go back to read the book again, I no longer hear my voice for the author. I hear someone else’s.

In between my junior and senior years of college, I took a summer class on literary criticism. We learned several different schools of criticism, but the one that comes to mind in a discussion like this is called reader-response criticism.

According to this school of thought, a text’s meaning is not only based on what the text actually says, but the various ways in which it makes the reader feel. Other things get brought into the mix that no author could ever intend: a reader’s past life experiences, certain memories the reader has of certain situations, etc. What I have come to find from reading so many books in my lifetime is that how I feel about the text I read is largely based on the kind of voice I give the narrator and how I imagine him/her to be describing each scene.

I can’t do this when someone reads me a story. The voice is foreign and never imagined. I learned this when I listened to a story about life from a perspective of a cat. Although I enjoyed the story, I didn’t love the story as much as I have loved other stories because my imagination wasn’t fully engaged. I did picture the situations and scenes described, yes, but not to the full extent that I could have. And when I went about my day, I hardly remembered the story or what I valued from it.

My point is simple: A story – fiction or non-fiction – is valuable to me when it engages your full imagination. When I sit down to read, I intend to give the author and the text my full attention just so that my fully imagination might be utilized. If I’m merely listening to the book, I’m able to divide my attention: I’m able to (as Jessie suggested) wash dishes or clean my room. These mindless tasks, she tweeted, could be made much more enjoyable by audio books. And I believe it’s that way for her. But for me, I disengage from the story the moment I put my attention on a new task – no matter how mindless it may be.

I’m not out to take down audio books or knock their value for anyone else. Like I said about the cat story; I enjoyed it. But there are far more stories I read only once that I remember much more clearly because I was enabled to be fully enthralled – completely lost – within the story. This just does not happen when I listen to a story rather than reading it with my own imagination.


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Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

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