Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Listening to books

Yesterday, I wrote some recollections and musings about how we come to read silently to ourselves. Today, I post my recollections and thoughts about listening to books. I came to think of all the following points when I listened to and read the article "Listening to Books" by Maggie Gram. Her opening paragraph really stood out to me:
I used to avoid talking about audio books. In general if you are 28 years old and in graduate school and you listen to audio books then the worst thing about the whole practice is admitting it to your graduate-school peers. Every time a book comes up in conversation, your dude friends will ask “Did you listen to that on audio book?,” and then they will laugh. Less dude-like people, people less invested in making fun of you, will just cock their heads to the side and ask you why you do it. As if liking books were not enough! As if it weren’t the best thing in the world to have someone read to you! As if you had something better to do! I thought about starting this essay by insisting that I listen to audio books for work, so that I could not be mistaken for that other kind of person, that kind of person who listens audio books because it brings her some kind of unsophisticated pleasure. I am not, I wanted you to know, your Aunt Paula. My kitchen is not decorated with rooster towel racks and rooster potholders and rooster trim. I am a very serious person.
I thought it quite ironic that I was one step beyond the points of audio book critics that she discusses in the article. I found, though, that I shared many of the points of wonder and disappointment that she had as well as the puzzlement of the perceptions of "printed page only" people that despise the spoken word.


"I listen to books." Yes. There, I said it. And I will repeat it: "I listen to books." It started when I found a set of cassette tapes of The Willow Pattern at the Tokyo American Club library in 1989 or 1990. There were a whole section of unabridged recordings of various books, but for some reason, I happened to see this one and chose it. The story - which I listened to on my radio in my room - was (for me at the time) a very violent and dark mystery from medieval China, and opens with the depiction of the murder. The narrator's voice gripped my imagination and I could almost see the dark hallway, the stair, and the newel post stoving in the unfortunate man's head. And then the actual story began.

I didn't actually read The Willow Pattern until I was much older, but it brought back to me all those images of a boy listening to gory murder and medieval mystery, done Chinese-style. In fact, I didn't read any of the Judge Dee mysteries until I graduated from undergraduate, and found new editions of the books at my local Barnes & Noble; I listened to them all on audio book format. And I listened to several more books in that format, some I hated (Moby Dick) and some I preferred the written word, but I learned quite early on that the spoken word carries with it a sensibility that is not apparent on the page (especially when read by a good reader).

I came by the notion rather late in life that listening to your book was somehow "bad"; almost as bad as watching a film adaptation of the book. This never made sense to me, since unabridged recordings - by definition - had all the words of the original (although footnotes were often omitted). Too, one cannot easily skip ahead in the book to a place that intuitively might make sense; one cannot skim through the pages; one cannot check the ending. The arguments against audio books is that it loses some of the mystery or novelty of the book when you hear someone else's "take" on it. And I agree that this is true. But I disagree that this is important. Especially if you have the book with you.

Since moving to Ann Arbor, I listened to 1776, narrated by the author himself (and so one can imagine that he was reading it in the way he wanted it read). I listened to the three His Dark Materials books. I haven't cracked covers on any of these. Recently, I've foregone audiobooks and have dived into listening to text-to-speech.

For years, I had tried out several different text-to-speech programs for the PC, and had been disappointed with them. They lacked rising and falling pitches to indicate questions versus statements. They lacked proper pauses at commas and periods. They mispronounced words or pronounced the punctuation. They were too slow and too cumbersome. They sounded like Stephen Hawking's voice emulator: very robotic; something only slightly more human than a Dalek.

But when I added Google Chrome to my web-browsing options, I added the "Select and speak" extension. Wow. Talk about a revolution in text-to-speech options. It can read in several languages (including Japanese and Spanish), and it's pronunciation and cadence are really quite good (especially considering that it's a free add-on). One of the great things is that it can read effectively any text that one can highlight in Chrome (provided - if the text selection is not in English - that the voice emulator is of the proper language). This means that it can read PDFs!

Also, I purchased a "Keyboard Kindle", which offers text-to-speech for most of the books that you can buy through Amazon (and is automatically turned on for any converted documents that you send to it). While not as advanced or smooth an emulator as the "Select and speak" one, I usually use it to listen to a book while on my commute, while I'm cooking, or when I pop out for a bit. Once you get used to its voice properties, it's not that difficult to actually listen to (and become engrossed in) the book that is being mechanically and interminably recited at you.

... and this brings me to the point of intention. With "Select and speak" and Kindle's "text-to-speech" options, the reader is the computer processor and speakers. It - by definition - has no intention, no preference of how to read a text. Indeed, it will read the exact same phrase in the exact same manner every single time it encounters it. This means that many things will fall "flat" if one doesn't actually follow along with what is being recited, thus painting one's own mental imagery from the direct words of the book. No longer is the excuse of the "intention" of the reader of issue here; instead it becomes as blank an intention as the written word itself. The words, as spoken by the emulators, just hang there, like the words just sit on the written page.

Finally, there is the point of internalization. I firmly believe that language is not primarily about the written word, but is about its spoken use. I also firmly believe that if one wishes to internalize a written text, one should enervate as many language pathways in the brain - visual, oral, and aural. Listening to something while  simultaneously reading it impresses a far stronger understanding in my head than merely reading it silently. If one were to add recitation of the written word while simultaneously listening to the same words, one quickly starts to understand why the recitation of texts by groups of people (whether two or two thousand) resonates so deeply in our psyches. (I have not, as yet, spoken along with the voice emulators...)

No comments: