Reading with your ears: do audiobooks harm or help literature?

News Date: Sunday, November 8, 2015

As soon as I mentioned it to Pascal Wyse, who created the soundtrack, he pointed out that the first three seconds of the audio file were missing. I listened again as soon as it was fixed, and those three seconds involved the sound of a train arriving. Suddenly the the rumble made sense and the story spun into its proper perspective.
Garner’s story was one of four we published this week, alongside others from Ali Smith, Evie Wyld and Alec Finley. Since they were conceived and created as audio works – with each author reading their story in the tract of woodland in which they were set – one would expect their sense to be intrinsically bound up with their sound. But each of them also exists as a written text, so they touched on a wider question: is a story essentially different if it is heard rather than read?

If you believe the literary critic Harold Bloom, it is. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” he told the New York Times. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Neil Gaiman dismissed this on his blog as “just snobbery and foolishness”, adding: “I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.”

It just so happens that Gaiman is one of the authors I “read” on audiobook this summer, on the way to interview him at this year’s Hay festival about his collection of “short stories and disturbances”, Trigger Warning. Gaiman is certainly a writer who can communicate well aloud, his voice and manner encapsulating the wide-eyed wonder of his best work.

My most startling recent audio-reading experience, however, was with Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. Reading the novel for myself, I found Nora an alienating figure, a mother with little maternal warmth, the flatness of whose life and relationships left me feeling flat too. It was only when I heard Fiona Shaw reading it that I understood the intricacy of Tóibín’s achievement, how he weaves a manner of thinking into a manner of speech, so that a whole era and society are contained in the narrator’s broken reporting of spoken sentences.

Take this exchange from the opening chapter, when newly widowed Nora cannot quite bring herself to tell a kind neighbour that she plans to sell her weekend cottage:

‘I remember one year,’ Nora said, ‘it was raining so hard you took pity on us and made us all come up here for our tea.’

‘And you know,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘your children have the best manners. They are so well reared.’

Those recurrent “she saids”, placed in the middle of sentences, seem a mannered tic on the page, but make such sense when you hear them, that listening to the book has made me a different, and better, reader of Tóibín.

The usual counter-argument to Bloom is to point out that people have been listening to stories for far longer than they have been reading them. Writing in defence of the audiobook in the New Yorker, John Colapinto cites the neuroscientist VS Ramamchandran, who argues: “Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing, probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hard wired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old – partially going piggyback on the same circuits, but partially involving new brain structures like the left angular gyrus (damage to which disrupts reading, writing and arithmetic). So it’s possible that listening to speech (including such things as cadence, rhythm and intonation) is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres – hence more evocative and natural.”

Which perhaps explains how it could be that it was only on hearing Tóibín’s novel that I fully understood it. It certainly explains why listening to this week’s four Forest fables has been such a sensuous pleasure.



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