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.