Many adults who say they don’t read blame lack of time. Now though, that position is harder to argue as – building on the ‘subscription culture’ created for music and screen by companies such as Spotify, HBO and Netflix – Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and the multilingual offering of Swedish giant Storytel are making things easy for audiobook consumers.
But although many of the latest news feeds and blogs are discussing audio books as if they were at the cutting-edge of innovation, listening to books is nothing new: as well as regular readings from the Bible for family and servants, our ancestors would sit together in the evenings while the patriarch read aloud improving literature or the next instalment of the latest serialised novel, and the mother or governess might read to the children in the schoolroom as part of their education. Even today, our earliest memories of books are usually those our parents read at bedtime or the teacher read to us at kindergarten story-time.
Íñigo García Ureta, Spanish author, editor and translator, reminds us of how we learned to love stories “not between the pages of a book, but between the sheets, listening to the voice of a father or a mother reading out loud.” Perhaps that aural experience is why he goes on to say, “A book, any book, is no more than a voice that resonates with us” and sums up this fundamental essence of literature as sound when he tells us, “Pretending that the ink is earlier – or superior – to the sound is like saying that the printed menu of a restaurant will satisfy our stomachs.”
One of the first audiobook initiatives dates back almost a century, to 1935, when the Royal National Institute of Blind People shipped the first Talking Books https://www.rnib.org.uk/how-talking-books-were-born, recorded on specially developed shellac records in an effort to combat the boredom, depression, and social isolation suffered by those who had lost their sight in the First World War. In fact, the technological antecedents of audiobooks go back still further: in 1890, Alfred Tennyson recorded his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade on a wax cylinder, with the help of Thomas Edison.
The RNIB continue to send out up to 10,000 books a day. No doubt their popularity is due in part to the skill of the readers: one big difference between reading and listening to a book is that the emotional responses produced by audiobooks are often more extreme due to the reader’s voice, which includes inflections, pauses and nuances, and makes the experience closer to a ‘performance’ of the book, akin to actors performing a theatrical work.
The neurological experience
In an attempt to discover the truth, a number of investigations have been carried out that study what happens at a cerebral level during the two different ‘readings’. The general conclusion is that whether we read or hear the words, the same neural networks are activated in the brain.
In support of this, the results of a study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4687557/ carried out by researchers in 2015, show that, “the convergence of the print- and speech-processing networks emerges as an invariant and universal signature of literacy proficiency.” It seems that, rather than being just a question of recognising symbols on a page, reading is so closely linked to speech that it depends on accessing the existing neural circuits that process meaningful spoken words. What’s more, the results were the same for different languages: not just for those with written alphabets like ours, but for languages with logographic writing, such as Chinese or Hebrew.
Despite this, the fact that the same brain structures are activated doesn’t mean that the experience is identical, as the brain processes the information in different ways. Whether we’re considering spoken or written text, the brain decodes the words and “fills in the blanks” with information that does not appear explicitly, but it doesn’t necessarily make the same connections. Bob Duke and Art Markman of the University of Texas discuss this in the Reading vs Listening podcast.
As we’ve said, audiobooks have fans, but also critics. One of the common arguments the latter fall back on is that sound has very little power to hold our attention. This seems to be backed up by a study by Canadian psychologists https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00892/full who had a group of 36 people experience the same book in three different ways: some read silently, others read aloud, while the third group listened to the book being read by another person. In the subsequent comprehension test, the psychologists found that those who had only heard the text retained less information than the other two groups. It seems, too, that reading aloud requires us to engage different sensorial effort and is most effective at helping us retain information.
That said, remembering the skills of the storytellers of old, who learned to recite epic poems by heart, it’s possible that memory and engagement are only a matter of training, and that those who practise and develop their listening skills can learn to experience a text they hear as completely as when reading.
Even when we read in the presence of other people, silent reading is an individual act. The audiobook experience, on the other hand, offers us an opportunity to return to the ‘social’ bonding aspects of our earliest encounters with the written word as read by our parents and teachers: simply by adding speakers to the device we are listening on, reading becomes a shared event, an activity that others can experience with us.
In short, there is no simple answer to the question of whether a printed or audiobook is superior. Everyone has their own personal relationship and connection with each of the formats, and the value of this emotional link is non-quantifiable.
One final philosophical question remains: a study published in 2010, based on more than 70,000 cases from 27 different countries, showed that children who grow up in a house with many books have an enormous advantage: they perform better at school and they continue their studies for longer than those who grow up in houses without books. What will happen in the future, when there may be many books in the house, but, being mostly digital or audio, these books are intangible?
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