I see red whenever I run into the pompous assertion that reading by listening to a book read aloud is not really reading. Then I ask (loudly, of course, to anyone who will listen), how did I read Ulysses (three times in as many decades) and Finnegans Wake (not quite once, completely)? How did I read À la recherche du temps perdu, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Was I deluding myself, or merely faking it?
Yesterday on NPR, I heard novelist Neil Gaiman ask, is an audiobook really a book? He paraphrased Harold Bloom on behalf of the naysayers: “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”
Gaiman followed Bloom’s judgment with his own: “I find that astonishingly unconvincing. I think you can have a close and perfectly valid relationship with the text when you hear it.”
Then audio book director Rick Harris insisted that he wants the experience to be different:
It is not a book. An audiobook is a separate entity. A novel can be seen as many things, and one of the things it can be seen as is a script for an audio performance. But it is another thing; it is an audiobook that has its own validity, its own limitations, its own strengths. The human voice is unquestionably the most expressive musical instrument there is. Combine those two and you get an audiobook.
To my great surprise, I found myself nodding at this like a Bobble-head. I think commercial audiobooks are something different, not just from printed books, but also from the books I read that were recorded for the National Library Service for the Blind. The production values that commercial publishers foist onto “audio performances” are, well, cheesy. The abridgments, the musical interludes with 101 strings, the histrionic characterizations by overwrought actors — such dramaturgy imposes interpretations on the text that cut the reader out of it.
So the litmus test for determining when a book is a book isn’t whether you see or listen. It’s whether your “relationship” with the text is really yours.