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What the Ear Receives that the Eyes Ignore

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James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

There are some books I can only listen to. Before audiobooks I never had the patience to read literary classics like The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Middlemarch by George Elliot, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, or Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I wouldn’t have finished Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty without listening to it, or Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Not only can I “read” these books, I love them in a way that reading with my eyes never allowed.

Now you might guess I need to finish big books, and there could be something to that, but the answer is more complicated. I’m currently listening to Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, which I could never read with my eyes, and it’s a short book.

I’ve been a bookworm since childhood when I develop the bad habit of reading fast. Speed reading works best with dialog-heavy genre novels. I didn’t learn the virtues of slow reading until I was fifty after I joined in 2002. Slow reading taught me how to smell the roses in each paragraph. Now, long narrative passages in fiction are just as entertaining as the conversations between characters.

I’ve met folks who have told me that listening is not reading. Saying I can’t claim to have read a book if I listened to it on audio. I wonder what those people would say to a blind person who just told them they’ve read Pride and Prejudice in Braille? To me, reading is consuming all the words in a book, and it doesn’t matter which sense decodes the words for the brain. I will admit that we experience a book differently depending on whether eyes, ears, or fingers are doing the reading.

The books I mention above are informationally dense, which requires slow deliberate reading to love. Slow reading, which is inherent in audio books, gives my mind time to process content that my eyes ignore when speeding along the sentence highways of literature. Yet, even if my eyes read slower, I wouldn’t experience a book in the same was as I do while listening.

Audio books have taught me numerous ways I am a bad reader. My internal narrator just can’t compete with professional audio book narrators. My mind does not add the drama, color, and emotion that a skilled narrator puts into their reading. I assume if I could read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to myself like Jim Dale the experience would be equal. I can’t even come close.

However, no matter how well Jim Dale reads, I have no idea how Rowling’s character names are spelled when listening to Harry Potter on audio. And if I’m reading something where I want to remember the facts, my eyes need to see them in print. But if I was still in school taking tests, listening gives me a better sense of the story, conflicts, and how the characters felt in each scene.

Listening to books has taught me how to be a better eye reader. If I get caught up in the story I still want to rush through it, but I now constantly remind myself to slow down. If I reread a book I usually try to read it in a different format from my last reading. However, I often start reading printed books and crave the audio edition. I know I’m missing the richer dramatic experience. But then, there are audio books I’m listening to and I’ll ache to see the words. Makes me wonder how I would experience a novel if I could read by touch.

For some of my very favorite books, I’m listening to them again with another narrator. Even that can make a big difference. For example, I’d love to hear Stephen Fry read the Harry Potter books. I believe he would make the experience different from Jim Dale. I still read books myself. I know I’m not very good at it but there are things the eyes receive that the ears don’t.