Printed Book v. Audio Book

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 8, 2014

I am reading and listening to the same book, Timescape by Gregory Benford. This 1980 science fiction novel is about the year 1998, and the Earth suffering from an environmental collapse. The reason it’s science fiction is because the people in 1998 find a way to send a message back to people in 1962 to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. I first read Timescape back in the early 1980s, just after it came out, and then listened to it in 2007. I’m reading it again this month for a book club, but as an experiment, I thought I’d listen to what I just read a week later. This has proved to be a fascinating experiment.

When I started routinely listening to audiobooks in 2002, I discovered just how bad a reader I was. Even though I was a lifelong bookworm, and thought myself a great reader, audiobooks revealed I wasn’t. My inner narrative was sketchy and wimpy compared to what I heard by professional narrators. This was true for a number of reasons, but mostly because I read too fast. I was skimming, rather than reading. There is more to reading than finding out what happens next. A great book will be rich in details, its scenes dramatic, and its characters full of distinctive voices. Speed reading tends to gloss over the details, flattens the drama and eliminates the voices.

A dozen year later, I now read much slower. I work very hard not to skim. I keep an eye out for the clues the author gives to imagine the dramatic interaction of the characters, and their personal voice. I’ve come a long way, but not far enough. I’m rereading Timescape because I’m leading a book discussion group, and I’m summarizing each chapter.  I concentrate harder on the details of the prose and take notes.

Then a week later, I decided to listen again to the same story. As I progress over each chapter, I remember reading the words. I’m don’t think I skimmed much at all, but it’s still very obvious that I’m not getting the dramatic intent of the story. The book is narrated by Simon Prebble, and he brings so much more nuance to the story. Prebble is not making stuff up, the clues to how the characters should sound are in the narrative, I just don’t imagine the drama in my head when reading compared to what I hear in the audiobook.

Strangely, listening to an audiobook is like using a magnifying glass to examine the details of writing. Benford has created characters with distinctive voices and psychologies. He even gives his sister-in-law, Hilary Foister, credit for helping him with the British portion of the story. For instance, I’m always jarred when British people drop the definite article, like when they say, “go to hospital” or “go to university.” I don’t know why we want the definite when declaring generic places, but that’s how it is. When reading that kind of thing in Timescape I didn’t notice it, but I did when listening.

When Renfrew meets Patterson for the first time he experiences a number emotions.  Renfrew grew up a working class kid that’s made it to Cambridge, to become a physicist,  and meets the upper class Peterson, a politico who’s going to evaluate his budget for a highly theoretical experiment in times when many are starving. Renfrew is very tense, and class conscious.

     “Good morning, Dr. Renfrew,” The smooth voice was just what he had expected.

     “Good morning, Mr. Peterson,” he murmured, holding out a large square hand. “Please to meet you.” Damn, why had he said that? It might have been his father’s voice: “I’m reet please to meet ya, lad.” He was getting paranoid. There was nothing in Peterson’s face to indicate anything but seriousness about the job.”

Do you feel the paranoia from reading it? I did a little, but I felt it more when listening. Prebble even does the father’s voice with the accent and different tone, a tiny flashback. The two men sound different in the narration, sounding like what Benford tells us they sound.

This rather plain passage presents all the essential details, but when I listened to Prebble read it, I got the feeling we were decoding more of Benford’s intent. I even picture how Benford imagined the scene and wrote it. Charles Dickens was famous for acting out his characters and scenes as he wrote them. I think most good writers, even if they aren’t hammy would-be actors, at least mentally picture their scenes in a dramatic way, and hear the voices of their characters. If you read very fast all characters sound the same – your inner voice.

When readers decode fiction they can reconstruct the scene in an infinite number of ways.  I tend to think most of us readers don’t do a lot of decoding, but merely grab the basic information to move the story forward and rush on to the next fact. I have met people who claimed to see novels acted out in their heads, but I don’t.

However, when I listen to an audio book read by a great narrator, I do. It’s like a book is a freeze-dried drama and the narrator is the water that reconstitutes the story. I think this is true because the audiobook goes at a very slow pace, the pace of speech. That gives my mind time to feel the words which triggers images. Finally, the professional reader colors the narration with a rich reading voice that adds addition textures.

Benford is not a great literary writer, but Timescape is far more literary than most science fiction novels. Timescape won several awards and has been added to many best book lists. I think it succeeded because it stand outs among other science fiction novels as better written and more character driven. It also stands out because of its serious extrapolation and speculation – it’s not your typical sci-fi escapism. And I feel listening to Timescape magnifies its higher qualities beyond what I was able to perceive by just reading the book with my inner voice – which is quite plain.

As a person who’d love to write fiction, I hear in Benford’s story what I’m missing in my own writing. The details I notice under the magnification of audio narration reveal qualities in writing I aspire to acquire. I think listening to audio books can be a superior way of decoding fiction. I wonder how blind people running their fingers across the Braille page compare what they take in by touch to what they hear with their finally tuned ears. Thousands of years ago when humanity transitioned from an oral culture to a written culture, I wonder if they missed what went away when they started reading silently.

As a lifelong book worm I’ve been conditioned to seeing words, but now I’m learning what it means to hear them.


15 thoughts on “Printed Book v. Audio Book”

  1. Do you ever read a book out loud yourself? You may not think of yourself as a great speaking reader, but I’ll bet you still notice way more than you would reading silently.

    1. I have tried reading aloud, but it’s tiring. But I should do it some just to practice. I also tried getting my wife to read with me, so we could take turns reading to each other, but after one book we gave up. Like handwriting, my ability to read aloud has deteriorated. I should practice both.

  2. I wish more people would read this post. There’s a whole world of people who have never considered audio books and would find it as a superior subsitute to the not reading of books they are currently doing (most people don’t read books for learning, they read articles). Though, my experience based on antedotal experience is that most people read better than they listen and can’t get into audio books. As for me, I listen much better than I read and if the book flows well I can become one with the book and absorb it fully. For me, that never happens while reading.

    For listening I need to multitask, I do the elliptical an hour each day and a two hour bike ride while listening to a story or a great course lecture and sometimes at night I’ll work on a crossword puzzle while listening to a story with my wife. For some reason, crossword puzzles and listening don’t use the same area of the brain for processing (at least for me).

    I met Benford’s twin brother. He was giving a course on High Power Microwaves and mentioned that his brother would routinely consult with him on the physics for his books. That’s why Gregory’s books have the science so precise (okay, okay, tachyons really don’t exist but timescape does the science nicely overall!).

    1. Gregory Benford was a scientist himself, an astrophysicist at the University of California. He’s retired now. I think Timescape does the working of scientists very well.

      I also multitask while I listen, but only with activities that don’t involve words. I couldn’t do crossword puzzles at the same time. But then I can’t do them anyway. Since my wife works out of town M-F, I eat alone most of the time, so I listen while I cook, eat and do the dishes. I also listen while I walk or exercise. I listen when I drive. Normally, I have to do something while I’m listening, or I’ll fall asleep. But I’ve discovered if I play the book through the big stereo in the den, I can listen just like I do when I watch TV.

    1. I did in the past, but I don’t think I do it any more. I concentrate so much on reading now that I’d be tuning out the music. But when I was growing up I loved to read science fiction and listen to rock music.

  3. I’m partial to both reading experiences, and have been made well aware of the fact that I’ve missed things, and sometimes missed intent, when I read something and then later listen to an audio book, particularly if the author is the one narrating. There are a couple of Neil Gaiman’s short stories that did nothing for me until I heard him reading them. When he read them his intent was obvious. The inflection, tone, emphasis, etc. significantly changed the story for me.

    Now I realize that isn’t always the case, but when a narrator does a good job I am never disappointed in the audio experience. I do think listening has taught me to be a more engaged reader over the years. This is particularly true when reading work where I’ve heard the same author or narrator multiple times. For example, any time I read Gaiman now I can hear him in my head. I’ve listened to him often enough that it is easy to get my reading in cadence with his narration and hear his voice in my head. It is a similar thing with Jayne Entwistle when it comes to the Flavia de Luce stories.

    For me, I don’t find one any better than the other, they are just different. My appreciation for audio books has a selfish motivation: I can get more “reading” done if I listen to audiobooks on my drive to and from work than I can if I just have that as dead time. I don’t listen to audiobooks constantly, usually just a handful every year, as I mix in sports radio, NPR and music listening, plus some much-needed quite time. But I do like taking that option to get five or six more books read a year, sometimes more, by listening to audio versions.

  4. I’m sure it would be similar if you listened to a book first and then read it second. You’re always going to find new nuances. It would be the same if you read it twice in a row or listened to it twice.

    But it is interesting how different the two experiences can be. I know that reading stories to my 3-year-old is interesting because I’ll do different voices for each character and what usually happens is I’ll do the first line of dialogue and then the text will say something like “he said creakily”. And I’ll think I didn’t read that creakily and I’ll read it again in a different voice.

    And Henry pays attention, he is constantly saying. “Is that what he sounds like?” when I do a new voice.

    1. I have listened first and then read a book. Usually I’m most amazed by how words and names are spelled. I notice the structure of writing that’s not visible from hearing.

  5. Enjoyed Timescape so much I picked up an extra copy in a thrift store to give to someone with the suggestion they should read it. I think it eventually came back to me unread. My reading habits have become sacred consisting of rituals about where I read, the music (usually Ambient) playing as I read and even the types of food/drink consumed. These habits also worked well with the few ebooks I’ve tried. Not sure if audio books would fit into that environment. I can’t get past the mental image of an audio book as no more than hiring someone to read you a novel length bedtime story. That leads me to the idea of audio books being used subliminally(?). If played while sleeping, would you dream the story?

    1. I’m coming to realize that Timescape is one of the great novels of science fiction. When I was kid, I’d read science fiction with the AM radio – and this was the 1960s, so some of the best music ever played while I read and stoked up on sugar and caffeine. Hearing the Motown classics often reminds me of the Heinlein juveniles.

      If you can get a copy of Timescape on audio Marcus, it might be an interesting experiment to see if it works with you. I think it helps to start with a novel you love. But the narration is excellent, combining an American reader for the 1962 portions and a British reader for the 1998 chapters.

      1. Thanks for illuminating me about audio. I really should listen to some of my books to see how they seem. I never reread my novels or even short stories so it might enlighten me. I’m a careful reader generally, always learning from other writers.

        1. I knew many authors don’t read their books, but it didn’t occur to me that they didn’t try the audio editions. It would be fascinating to know how writers react to their audio books.

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