Thursday, March 5, 2009

What is "Reading"?

I know, I know, bizarre question. But there's method to my madness! No, really, there is. I swear. See, I might even prove it...

What brought the odd question to mind is my current enjoyment of the Harry Potter series via audiobook (while driving to and from work). It came about naturally enough. I had a curiosity about the series, and yet my To Be Read pile was filled with books that seemed more lush and enticing. Was I really going to devote that much of my reading time to the consumption of four or five thousand pages of Harry Potter? Um... no. But filling the dead hours of driving to and from work every day? Hmmm... yes, please. Why not?

It was a good choice, I think. The reader is excellent, the story fun and simple and easy to keep track of while weaving through snarls of traffic. I've made it through four of the seven books, and plan on listenting to the last three as well. Yet as I listened to the books I started to wonder... am I reading?

What is reading? For me it had always been a visual act. There's me and the words. We have a relationship. I see and absorb them, and they both shape and are shaped by me, becoming part of my consciousness. But now I was listening...

If someone asks me if I've read Harry Potter what do I say? I know the stories, the words are a part of me... and yet I haven't seen them. I haven't seen the movies, either, so I can't blame them for this understanding. Have I read the books? It's that intermediary that causes problems. It used to be: words - me. Now it's: words - reader - me. He's reading and I'm listening...

Yet many of the necessary actions are still the same. This is not the more passive absorption of film, where the narrative is complete in and of itself. The story still has to come to life in my head, shaped by my own imagination. And yet the voices are provided: it's imagination with an audio track. Is it different? Is it reading?

What do you think?


Bookworm1605 said...

Ehhh, I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with audio books. Heard one myself back in the college days, driving back and forth between school and home. It was one of those Timothy Zahnn Star Wars continuing saga stories. It sucked but it wasn't the reader's fault.

There's something special about focusing my eyes on the written word and allowing that mystical link to form between my mind and the author's. Sometimes when I'm just beginning to read my eyes want to be distracted by the letters themselves. I have to make myself relax--nudge my eyes slightly out of focus--so that the story can come alive. In time, the individual words and paragraphs fade away and I'm transported into the story. There's just something magically direct about the act of reading.

I think audio books fall somewhere between reading and movies.

But that's just my opinion.

Ink said...

Yeah, that's the way I'm leaning. I mean, my experience with an audiobook isn't so different from what my son experiences when I read or tell a story to him. And he just turned two and can't read yet. So I think I'm voting on the somewhere in between too... but it's interesting in that it makes me wonder what it is that actually defines "reading". What about braille? I'd lean towards saying that is reading, as it lacks that intermediary. You simply have word symbols which you take in through your senses and must translate into a narrative.

Audiobooks do make the drive a little more interesting, though... especially when I'm in a non-music mood.

Ms Kitty said...

I'm of the opinion that experiencing a story is experiencing a story. I don't think the media matters. We read to children, audio books read to adults.

It's a matter of taking the larger view of things. In the scale of time, reading is the newcomer, not listening to the story.

Reading is the substitute for the story-teller of the pre-literature days of our species.

Think about it. Even now we like to gather round the dinner table, camp fire, grill, water cooler and swap stories (lies).

The Greeks had theaters, the Romans had - well leave them out they liked blood sport.

The Chinese and Japanese have theaters as does India. The older the civilization the more stories they have to tell.

Ink said...

I do think the absorption of story is the most important thing... and yet watching a film and reading a book are not the same thing. My son is two and he can listen to a story but not read it. The experience is different. But how different? It's sort of interesting to me. I wonder how much the perception of the story changes? I think reading physical type is the most personal, as you have the most work to do. The job of translation is entirely yours. An audiobook does some of that for you, and as such it's a little different. Film is more distant yet. It's complete, it is what it is, and you simply have to take it in.

Thanks for responding to my odd little question. :)

Wanu said...

Ms Kitty is right, listening came first. But also with the spoken story tradition, you wouldn't just have a speaker's interpretation of the voices, but actually a different set of words from the story's previous incarnations.

Yeah, reading and listening are different, but it's really the story that creates engagement. The benefit of a book over a movie is all the internal stuff, thoughts and sensations. Then, too, scents and such are more vivid in the imagination than inferred from a screen.

I'd say that listening to a story is to experience it in the way it was meant, so listening is a lot closer to reading than it is to watching a film.

That's what I reckon anyway.

Ink said...

Yet there's still that performance element between you and the text... I'm guessing it would be easy to be annoyed by an audiobook "reader" and put off a book that you might really life if you were reading it yourself. Luckily, the Harry Potter guy is really good, though I don't know what it would be like if I had firmly preconceived notions about the characters and what they sounded like.