Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Listening and Reading Are Not the Same Thing, By Bryant Burnette

There's a good interview at Talk Stephen King between David Squyres and Matt Jacobs (of the Stephen King Fan Cast).  Check it out.

David and Matt are both audiobook fanatics.  That's cool.  I love audiobooks, too.  However, they (charmingly) persist in thinking that listening to an audiobook is the same thing as reading a book, and I (dickishly) persist in trying to educate them to the contrary.

Amongst the other topics in their interview, they took a moment to gang up on me on the subject, and you know me: I ain't gonna let that slide.

Class in now in session!

Reading is the act of reading: passing one's eyes across printed words (or, in the case of Braille, one's fingers along raised surfaces) in the act of consuming information.  Listening is the act of being spoken (or, in this case, read) to by someone else.  They are not the same thing, plain and simple.  At some point in the future, I have no doubt, we will be able to download texts into our brains, and thereby possess full retention of it.  This will be a superior process of consuming a text, but it will still not be reading; it'll be its own thing, and there will be a need to call it something else so as to make clear the distinctions between the two.

As a comparison, if you go out for dinner at a restaurant, you wouldn't say you "cooked" dinner, would you? 

No; you would say that you had dinner, but that it was cooked for you.  Whether you've cooked dinner or someone else has cooked it for you, you've had dinner ... but there is definitely a difference -- factually, though perhaps not in terms of quality -- between cooking it yourself and having it cooked for you.

With books, it's the same thing.  You're consuming the book either way, but there is a difference -- factually -- between reading it for yourself and having it read to you.  I'm attaching no value judgments here; I'm simply stating a fact. 

Someone reading the book to you is going to read it in certain ways -- with inflections, pauses, vocal tones, character voices, etc. -- that would be different than the way you would read it to yourself.  The meanings of the words are being shaped by that reader, translated through their thoughts and emotions, and formed in a way different than you would do if you were reading it to yourself.

Furthermore, in some cases prose is designed to do things that cannot be replicated aurally.  Take King's novel Misery as an example.  King uses different font styles to convey information about the manner in which Paul Sheldon is composing his new novel.  These tricks cannot be replicated vocally; it is literally impossible to do so, and hence, something has quantifiably been lost in the translation.  (I wrote about this topic in one of the first posts on my blog, which can be found here, for anyone who is interested.)

That's an extreme example, but here's a less-extreme one: when you are listening to an audiobook, how do you know when a paragraph has ended?  You don't.  The reader may pause to try and indicate it, but he also pauses when there is an ellipsis ... so how can you tell the difference? 

You can't; not always, at least.  You can't tell the difference between a colon and a semicolon, either.  You can't tell the difference between these three things, which are conveying the same information, but with slight -- yet definite -- variations in meaning and emphasis:

(1) He said -- laughingly -- that it was all a game.

(2) He said (laughingly) that it was all a game.

(3) He said, laughingly, that it was all a game.

A truly great reader can do it.  Frank Muller, for example.  But even good ones can't do it every time, and the potential is there for the reader to interpret things differently than you would have done for yourself. 

Prose matters.  When it's great prose, every comma, every ironically capitalized letter, every paragraph break ... everything the author does has the potential to convey something crucial, which can be lost in the translation to audio format.

By sloppiness or momentary inattention, we all miss such things when we read for ourselves, also, at least occasionally.  But by allowing a reader to interpret the language for you, you are forfeiting your ability to interpret this type of thing for yourself.  You have gone -- in some regard -- from active participant to passive participant.  Saying those are the same thing is, again, simply inaccurate.

Similarly, if you read an English translation of a French-language novel, you are not actually reading the French novel; you're reading a translated version which has been adapted by someone else.  Want to read the real version?  You'd better learn to read French, or learn to not mind not knowing what the words you're reading mean, because otherwise, it's not happening.  The two things are not the same.  Similarly, a book and an audiobook are not the same thing.

Fellas, words DO mean something, and when you're listening, it means you're listening ... not reading.

If that were not the case, I could say I was going to drive my truck to play and then eat some lunch once I got back to my hotel, and mean I was driving my car to work and would have dinner once I got back to my apartment.

Not the same thing.  Related concepts, yes; but also very, very different.  I say this lovingly, of course.  I'm a fan of both of you, and love the work you do.

Class dismissed!


  1. Then you're in a sad minority.

    After reading the article, I printed a copy and asked my wife to read it to me. Both versions were equally boring. Just like this article and most of this blog.

    Whenever I have INSOMNIA, I read a couple paragraphs from this blog and immediately fall asleep. So, at least this blog has one redeeming value...