Has Reading With My Ears Ruined My Desire To Read With My Eyes?

I have hundreds of unread books sitting on my shelves wagging their tales anxious to be read, but of the 28 books I “read” so far this year, only one was read with my eyes.  And that one, Marsbound by Joe Haldeman, was read as a magazine serial.  Had it been available on audio at the time, like it is now, I wouldn’t have read any printed books this year.  Of the 39 books I read last year, only two were printed.  Before I discovered audio books on digital players through Audible.com in 2002, I read on average 6-12 books a year.  After digital audio, I’m reading 35-55 books each year.

I read more audio books now because, one, I can multitask reading with walking, driving, doing the dishes, eating alone, and other quiet mindless activities.  Second, I listen to more books than I read because I’m enjoying them more.  When I was kid I was a real bookworm, often reading a book a day for weeks at a time.  I discovered a lot of fun books back then, but I have since reread some of those books on audio and discovered I missed a lot from reading too fast and poorly.  Third, audio books got me out of my science fiction rut and into a wider range of literature because listening gives me the patience to read books with my ears that I would never take the time to read with my eyes.  Fourth, and this is the most important, I think I experience books better through audio because I’ve discovered I’m not a very good reader, and the quality of audio book narrators have constantly improved in recent years and I flat out prefer listening to a great reader than doing a botched up job myself.

Now, the the question is:  Has reading with my ears destroyed my desire to read with my eyes?  When the seventh Harry Potter book came out last year I raced through it like everyone else, so I know I can still enjoy eyeball reading, but the whole time I wished I had waited for the audio edition to arrive from Amazon. 

To force myself to read a book with my eyes, I bought Incandescence, a new novel by Greg Egan.  I was in the mood for some cutting edge science fiction and it wasn’t available on audio.  And, I am enjoying reading it.  I read slower than I used to – that’s something listening has taught me.  But as I go through the sentences I can’t help but think this book would sparkle far greater if I was hearing it read by a fine reader.

So, have audio books become a crutch?  Or have I just discovered a better way of experiencing books and have become addicted?  If EMP killed off all the iPods in the world I think I’d want to try and recreate audio books in the old fashion way.  I’d want someone to read to me, or I’d want to learn how to read aloud and try to dramatically present stories like the narrators I love so much to hear.

Yet, if this return-to-the-19th-century catastrophe happened I might end up reading more books because all the computers and televisions would be out of commission too.  I started reading like crazy in junior high school when I outgrew Gilligan’s Island and I wanted to break away from my family unit.  I had lots of time and even though I had plenty to do, I preferred the laziness of reading.

In our society, literacy is a virtue, but being a kid gorging himself on science fiction does not confer a lot of social status.  It was plain old escapism.  If iPods and Audible had been invented in 1965 I would have grown up listening to books, and I would have listened to better books than I had been reading.

I’m currently listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  That’s one book I would never read with my eyes, but if I had read it and The Age of Innocence at 13, I would have had a much better understanding of those scary junior high girls.  I think I’m a much better person at 56 for reading Wharton.  That wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for audio books, and I was an English major during my college years.  I had a hard time reading classic novels – I kept hoping they’d assign fun modern novels, but they didn’t.  If I had gotten to hear the classics back then I would have been a much better literature student.  I know this is true because when I took three Shakespeare classes I listened to the plays on LPs and aced my exams, plus I admired the writing so much more.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting you should give up reading with your eyes.  I think many people are better than I am at reading.  I just discovered late in life, at around 50, that I was a lousy-ass reader.  When I do read now, I do try harder try to hear what I’m seeing.  That requires reading slower and thinking about the dramatic quality of the sentences in front of me.  I wish I could read like Jeff Woodman or Jim Dale, but I don’t.

Last night I pulled down several novels that I’ve been meaning to read and read a few pages from each.  I admired the writing but I realized I would never read them.  Middlemarch, Vanity Fair and Call It Sleep are just too dense for me to read with my eyes.  I brought them to work today and put them on our book give-away table.  They disappeared in a few minutes and I hope they have found good homes.

Audio books have greatly enriched my life.  I truly don’t think they have ruined my urge to read with my eyes, because that urge was already fading.  Without audio books I’d probably continue reading 6-12 books a year for the rest of my life.  Before I turned fifty I was thinking I might only read another 200 books before I died, and wondered why I owned 1,200 and was buying more all the time.  I’ve already listened to more than that planned 200, so audio books have already expanded my reading lifetime. 

My desire to “read” books is greater than any other time in my life, but strangely I’m going to stop buying books, ones printed on paper, that is, because they will sit on my shelves, unread, and I’m feeling way too guilty to add any more lonely unread pages.


7 thoughts on “Has Reading With My Ears Ruined My Desire To Read With My Eyes?”

  1. I’m not sure it is really anything to feel concerned about one way or the other.

    “Third, audio books got me out of my science fiction rut and into a wider range of literature because listening gives me the patience to read books with my ears that I would never take the time to read with my eyes.”

    That alone is reason enough to be satisfied with the direction this shift has given your life. Opening yourself up to a broader range of fiction is a good thing…provided of course you are ‘reading’ stuff you enjoy.

    I know it can be a popular thing to denigrate escapism, especially when that seems to come in the form of being a reader who more heavily favors genre literature like sf/f, but I’ve long stood against that idea. I believe all reading is escapism in some form or fashion but I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think it is just one more avenue of entertainment and also speaks about the natural human inclination towards freedom. In the end I don’t think it is a bad thing to want to be entertained. I certainly know I’ve had as much ‘life-changing’ experience with what would be considered throwaway science fiction as I have with any ‘great work of literature’ that I have read in my life. Contrary to what seems to be a popular idea today…that being a reader in general doesn’t designate any social status, etc if you are reading ‘junk’…I think reading is still a sign of both intelligence and, more importantly, opens up a world to the human mind and imagination that no other form of entertainment does. Whether in audio or written format. Maybe I’m old fashioned that way, but I am stubbornly so and I still believe I am right.

    Back to the point, I think it is fantastic that more and more books are on audio today and you are correct, there are some amazing readers out there. Although I still get a kick out of holding a book in my hand, smelling the ink and paper, looking at the cover image…I too have found that there are certain books that I own that I am reluctant to reread as I am so enamored of the audio versions I own.

    I am listening to Neil Gaiman’s book Fragile Things right now as I drive to and from work. It is perfect ‘reading’ for this time of year and hearing him read the stories himself makes them come alive in ways they didn’t when I read the book–and I consider myself a really good reader and did really like the book when I read it. Interestingly enough, both myself and a friend of mine had not thought very highly of one of the award winning stories in the book when we read it. Then we heard Neil read it and we were blown away by it. There was just something about hearing it being read aloud in the voice that it was written in that really opened up the story.

    I have the same experience with Dracula, a book that I used to read on average once every two years. Several years ago I bought an unabridged audio presentation of it from Barnes and Noble, one with an actor and actress doing all the male and female roles, respectively, and I love it. I can certainly understand some of the guilt, if that is the right word to assign to your feelings, over audio vs. “reading” because I do feel a bit of sadness when I think that I may never get motivated enough to ever read Dracula in the traditional way again.

    But in the end, despite my quotation marks and talking around the issue, I still consider audio books to be ‘reading’. A person is still engaging with the material, and in both of our cases perhaps doing so more and in deeper ways then when reading the printed word for ourselves.

    For me there are still too many books that I want to read the traditional way that I cannot find on audio and I have not yet taken the bold leaps you have and become a more wired individual. I don’t have an I-pod or any of the other audio devices that would allow me to take advantage of all the free or economical fiction online. That and the fact that I really only listen to audio books in the car right now mean I still read more the old fashioned way. However I am very thankful audio books exist because I have had some wonderful, truly immersive experiences with books on long trips over the past decade that I wouldn’t trade for the experience of reading them myself.

  2. Oops, by the way I went out and bought The Little Book this week though I am currently resisting the urge to read it while I feed my gothic/creepy literature desires these next few months.

  3. Carl, I’m starting to think of you as my contributing editor here at Auxiliary Memory since you provide so much good content.

    By the way, I keep thinking about “reading” Dracula. It’s often discussed around the office and I have never read it. Who were the narrators? I also have Fragile Things on my iPod in a queue of books waiting to be listened to.

    I’m to the point now that I’m thinking of re-listening to some books and trying new narrators to see how their presentation affects the book. I have listened to On The Road by three different narrators. I know that Stephen Fry does the narration for the Harry Potter books in Great Britain, and thought about finding a way to buy them.

    I know I’m lazy about how I use the word escapism. It is both positive and negative to me. I think I need to write a whole blog post about the concept.

  4. I found it interesting to read about your experience of “reading” more by listening. Here in Canada studies of book buying habits show that one big reason why people don’t buy more books is that they don’t have enough time to read as much as they would like to. The Canadian Audio Book company I work with, Rattling Books has a slogan for that:
    “Listen, a way to read more.”
    Your article reinforced that for me.

    I hope you’ll check us out, we’re small but fine and online at http://www.rattlingbooks.com


  5. First off let me say that I wasn’t really talking to you in my rant about escapism, your words just brought up much more critical, and biting, things I’ve read on the point and your words to me sounded somewhat apologetic and I generally get frustrated when I feel like people have to apologize for the genres that they love. It is ridiculous. I know you weren’t doing that, but I interpreted that in light of my own issues in that area. Hope it didn’t sound like I was taking you to task as that was not my point. I think I prefer the term ‘entertainment’ to ‘escapism’ simply because no matter what a person means to say the word ‘escapism’ carries with it a connotation that a person is using a means of escapism to avoid dealing with life’s troubles, etc.

    Anway, here is a link to the Barnes and Noble audio series. I’ll try to remember to look up the narrators, I’m not finding them right now:


    The man does a fantastic job with all the voices. The woman, who does two different roles, does great with one and is a little annoying with the other one but after listening to it awhile I got used to the overdramatic nature of it and didn’t notice it so much. But it was a little rough at first. The edition isn’t too wildly expensive and in my mind is worth getting.

    I’ll be interested in your thoughts on Fragile Things. Like all short story collections, some work, some don’t, and some strike one reader as amazing and the next as terrible.

    I’ve wanted to do the same thing you describe. I know that there is an American version of Coraline read by Gaiman and a British version read by Dawn French. I’d love to hear both of them and compare. I remember thinking that I would be disappointed Gaiman wasn’t reading Anansi Boys and then when I heard Lenny Henry’s reading I was blown away. He gives it a life and inhabits the character in a way that I never got from the couple of times I read the book myself.

    If you ever have a chance to download MP3s of Caleb Carr’s novels The Alienist and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, read by Edward Hermann I believe, I would recommend them. At least my recollection from many years ago is that they were great, especially the first one. I think you can download them on Amazon, they were never put out on CD to my knowledge. Good stuff, especially this time of year.

  6. Janet, “Listen, A Way to Read More,” is a great slogan, and it has at least two meanings. First, by listening you can read more books. But it also means, you can perceive more of what you are reading at various levels by listening.

    How has the public responded to your slogan?

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