Friday, February 04, 2011

“What are you listening to?”

I mentioned in my first post that I listened to audio books. Several readers have asked me, “But do you think that’s the same as reading?” (Meaning, I think, “Do you think that’s as good as reading?”) Is it a substitute for reading? For some it might be: a friend has found them a godsend for her book-loving mother, who can no longer read because of failing eyesight. For those with visual learning disabilities, audio books may open doors. For most, however, listening to a book is simply a different experience.

Perhaps the most obvious way listening is different is when it’s done. Most “readers” of audio books use them to pass the time on long drives. They’re certainly better than talk radio! I don’t drive much, but I listen to books when I’m walking, gardening and even doing housework (but not while cooking – that’s a recipe for disaster.) There are three architects here in town who listen to them while drafting – they take turns choosing what to listen to. A Westover Hills patron is a claims adjuster for a large insurer who listens to them while processing claims. Yet another listens as she makes jewelry. In today’s multi-tasking world, audio books seem right at home.

Another difference might be the kind of books one listens to. I don’t read David Baldacci or Jodi Picoult, but I like to listen to them. At one time I didn’t read nonfiction, but I enjoyed listening to it. Conversely, there are books I read but would never consider listening to. For me it is usually a question of how much of my attention a book demands, since I am always doing something else when I listen.

Audio books also introduce a third person into our experience: the narrator. Communication between author and reader is usually a dialogue, with our imaginations providing voices and setting the pace. The performer of an audio book assumes those responsibilities for us, and we may not always agree with his or her interpretation. Authors often read their own books, which can add to the experience. Malcom Gladwell is a wonderful reader, for example. I have listened to two of his books (Outliers and Blink) and read two – I think listening to him is even better than reading him. He also reads his recently published collection of essays originally published in The New Yorker, What the Dog Saw. I wish I hadn't already read them all! Some authors, however, should stick to writing. (I won’t mention names.)

More often, audio book readers are television or stage performers, who bring a touch of drama to the experience, assuming different characters’ voices and adjusting their delivery to the action. Dion Graham is a master audio book performer, most recently of the new audio version of Dave Eggars’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Books with multiple narrators or points of view read by different performers usually make for good listening: the audio version of the best-seller The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has gotten rave reviews from patrons who listened to it; Jodi Picoult’s books also lend themselves to performances by multiple readers.

If you’ve never considered an audio book, I encourage you to give one a try. They’ve come a long way since the concept of “books on tape” was first introduced. The Richmond Public Library has a wide selection of current releases, many of them available in MP3 format. (And, in answer to the question, "What are you listening to?" that started this discussion: Mary Ann In Autumn, by Armistead Maupin, a twenty-years later sequel to his charming series, Tales of the City, read by the author. )

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good suggestions - the links to your catalog are handy.