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Appreciating audio books

/ 10:00 AM January 08, 2020

I learned to appreciate audiobooks more than 20 years ago when I had to drive nearly an hour to work each day. Back then they were known as “books on tapes,” a convenient, but clunky way to enjoy a thriller by John Le Carre or a history of World War II while sitting in traffic.

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Audio books are bigger and much easier to enjoy nowadays. And for daily commutes via car, bus or train, they’re perfect.

I’ve listened to books about the history of the Middle East during the time of Lawrence of Arabia, the life of Genghis Khan and the memoirs of Michelle Obama, Billy Crystal and Bruce Springsteen.

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Now there’s long been a debate on whether listening to books is the same as and should be counted as traditional reading. In fact, some have even argued that reading is cheating (especially if you’re a member of a book club.)

Listening to a book is a passive activity, some say.

“The critical difference, for me, between reading and listening is that reading is something you do, where listening is something that happens to you,” science writer Cody Kommers says in Psychology Today.

“Reading is an act of engagement. The words on the page aren’t going to read themselves, which is something they literally do in an audiobook. If you’re not actively taking in written information, then you’re not going to make progress on the book. Audiobooks, on the other hand, make progress with or without your participation. You can tune out, your mind wandering around the subject at hand, and there will still be forward motion in the story.”

These are good points, but I’d also highlight the advantages of audio books. Convenience is just one of them. Aside from enjoying a book on the way to work, it has also made long workouts more enjoyable and engaging,

Audio books also offers “major advantages over reading, even with material as tough to parse as Shakespeare,” wrote Forbes’ Olga Khazan who pointed to prosody, the manner and intonation words are recited.

“An audio book pre-determines an aspect of language called prosody, or the musicality of words.

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“Prosody is how we know that someone is being self-reflective when they ask aloud if they left the gas on (or when Hamlet asks whether “to be or not to be”),” Khazan writes.

She also quoted Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia professor who said: “Someone who knows the meaning can convey a lot through prosody. “If you’re listening to a poem, the prosody might help you.”

Khazan quotes another professor, Arthur Graesser, who said: “The half-life for listening is much longer than for reading. In other words, one is more likely to finish an audio book than a regular one.

That’s certainly been true for me for a basic reason: convenience. I’m able to continue reading while commuting and working out and doing other things.

However, I do agree with one key point that’s come up in the articles and the debates over audio books. It really depends on the type of book one listens to. I find it hard to listen to a novel or a work of fiction. It’s simply more engaging to read a novel the old way.

On the other hand, audio books, I feel, are ideal for many kinds of nonfiction books. In fact, I think they’re perfect for memoirs.

The best audio books I’ve enjoyed feature people telling their stories.

I came to appreciate “Becoming,” the bestselling and critically-acclaimed memoir of Michelle Obama by listening to her recall her journey from the daughter of working class parents in Chicago to one of the most prominent figure in US politics.

Actor and comedian Billy Crystal was hilarious in reading his memoir, “Still Foolin ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?”

And it’s been a treat to listen to Bruce Springsteen. Not to him singing, but the rock start recalling his own life story from a working class New Jersey to the top of the music world.

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TAGS: audio books vs. print, books, literature, reading vs. listening
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