I’d Rather Read With My Ears

From The Wall Street Journal:

I don’t read books, I devour them. A friend recently asked how I read so many books so quickly. When I told him I listen to each one as an audiobook, he guffawed: “That doesn’t count!”

He isn’t alone in that view, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. Humans, after all, weren’t always so beholden to the written word. From ancient Greek philosophers and Elizabethan thespians to revivalist preachers and barnstorming politicians, the world has long been captivated by the spoken word. Before the Sermon on the Mount became a series of Bible chapters, it was . . . a sermon.

Yet despite the rich oral origins of literature, in some book clubs there’s an almost palpable tension between those who read and those who prefer to listen. What’s more, as I’ve read book reviews and commentary online, I’ve frequently found evidence of people thumbing their noses at audiobooks.

. . . .

Maybe it’s worth understanding why people like me prefer audiobooks in the first place. One obvious reason is convenience. Jessica Hamzelou explains in the New Scientist that when our minds wander, they switch “into autopilot mode,” which enables us to “carry on doing tasks quickly, accurately, and without conscious thought.” The region of our brains that does this is called the default mode network, or DMN, and it becomes active only when performing rote tasks.

That’s great news for multitaskers. Driving, mundane work assignments, chores, exercising and grocery shopping can all be repetitive activities. Such tasks are likely to activate your brain’s DMN. If you’re going to perform the same rote activities anyway, why not immerse yourself in a good book at the same time?

Especially because listening as opposed to reading actually improves comprehension. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, explained the literary technique known as prosody: “the pitch, tempo and stress of spoken words. ‘What a great party’ can be a sincere compliment or sarcastic put-down, but they look identical on the page.” Thus the written word can be ambiguous: “Inferences can go wrong, and hearing the audio version—and therefore the correct prosody—can aid comprehension.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

A lovely word, prosody.

PG doesn’t believe he has typed it since graduating from college, but prosody was included in a lot of written work he submitted before that, mostly in the analysis of poetry, where the sound of the words and their meter (and changes in either one mid-poem) can be very important in understanding the meanings and messages of a well-written poem.

PG was moved to check on the more recent status of prosody and discovered a Masters Thesis titled, Prosodic Font – the Space between the Spoken and the Written.

A couple of excerpts:

When most words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world, they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular. They lose much of the personal element…They lose those emotional overtones and emphases…Thus, in general, words, by becoming visible, join a world of relative indifference to the viewer – a word from which the magic ‘power’ of the word has been abstracted.
Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), quoting J.C. Carothers, writing in Psychiatry, November 1959.

Compared to the richness of speech, writing is a meager system. A speaker uses stress, pitch, rate, pauses, voice qualities, and a host of other sound patterns not even vaguely defined to communicate a message as well as attitudes and feelings about what he is saying. Writing can barely achieve such a repertoire.
Gibson and Levin, from the Psychology of Reading (1975).

This thesis is about writing. Or rather, what writing might become when one is writing by speaking. What does the introduction of software that can translate speech into written symbols do to the nature of writing, of reading? Does the message itself, the written object, change in appearance from what we now know, and from what it appears to be at first glance? Does it encode just the words that we write now by hand? Or does it also encode the emotional overtones, the lyric melody, the subtle rhythms of our speech into the written symbology? What, then, does typography become?

. . . .

Prosodic typography uses the active recognition of speech and prosody – the song and rhythm of ordinary talk – in the design of a font. Further, the temporal and dynamic characteristics of speech are to some extent transferred to font representation, lending written representations some of talk’s transitory, dynamic qualities. A prosodic font is designed for motion, not static print. Prosodic typography is the electronic intervention between speech and text. It represents the contextual, individual aspects of speech that printed typography does not capture.

Link to the rest at ResearchGate

(If the ResearchGate link doesn’t work for you, here’s a link to the thesis without illustrations – Prosodic Font – the Space between the Spoken and the Written)

Here’s a copy of a single word rendered in a prosodic font. The caption describes the vocalizations differed between the two words:

Rosenberger, Tara. (1998). Prosodic Font : the space between the spoken and the written. by Tara Michelle Graber Rosenberger.

9 thoughts on “I’d Rather Read With My Ears”

  1. If you have time to listen but not read – say a commute, a daily walk or household chores – audiobooks aren’t the only choice. They’re often longer than the time available and listening to only a piece of the content at a time may not work for you.

    What’s been working for me is podcasts, and I suggest trying them out. Apple has apple podcasts. I’ve been using pocketcast for android.

    A content example – Michael Lewis discusses the role of referees in modern society, not just in sports but judges and others. The episodes are an hour long and very worthwhile.


    Pretty much all NPR shows are available as podcasts to be listened to at your convenience. I’m pretty sure other commenters can come up with great recommendations.

  2. Audio books are great for long drives, but otherwise I can’t listen to them – I stop paying attention. And I do better with listening to ones I’ve already read. Then getting distracted due to traffic doesn’t lead to having to backtrack which means distraction, which is bad.

    Podcats have the same ‘zone out’ effect.

    and what about the narrator choosing the right response instead of letting the reader decide on how the words were meant? I’ve had some really great discussions where we all had different takes.

    • Mrs. PG and I take periodic trips to visit one part of the family that involve driving 8-9 hours each way.

      Those trips are a great opportunity for us to listen to audiobooks together, quite often works by British authors from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. We both enjoy those quite a lot, but don’t generally listen to audiobooks on other occasions.

  3. Nit-picky, I know, but the OP title annoys the heck out of me.

    You read a story or article through your eyes (for some, through the fingers).

    You listen to a story or article through your ears.

  4. Is it something in my browser (somehow) that is causing PG’s blog to show no comments on anything on the main page? But if I select the article there are actually be comments under most of them.

  5. Each to their own. I can get ideas or other thoughts popping into my brain-case while reading, the printed word is much easier (for me) to go back a page and get back into the story.

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