Dances with Words

After listening to an audiobook, do you consider having read the book?

Why or why not?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. I love reading, but I’m a slow reader. It’s always faster to listen to a book read to me than reading it myself. So you see the appeal there. And I can make good use of my time while driving.

But I always feel there’s a difference between listening and reading. All along, I don’t equate having listened to an audiobook with having read the printed pages. I’m beginning to find the word ‘finish’ most apt, since it can apply to both. Saying ‘I have finished a book’ can mean either.

Oral tradition of storytelling has long been around in human history, a way to preserve tales and legends that had not found a written form. But for those that do have a life in words, or, ‘texts’ in our eAge, why do I still hesitate to consider listening to them the same as reading the print version?

At long last, I think I’m beginning to get a hold of what could be the difference… and this may sound so common sense to you. But, it’s an Eureka moment for me.

Here it is: Reading a book is a first-hand encounter. I’m the sole interpreter of the text. Like partners in a dance, as a reader I respond and move with every single word in my own way.

The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch (1900)

With audiobooks, I’m listening to a voice that has already interpreted the written codes. Every audio recording is a performance. And I mean it in a good sense. The reading I’m listening to has passed through an interpretive filter. That voice must have first read the words, internalized, and then delivered them with what the voice thought was the appropriate diction, pitch, accent, tempo, emotion…

When I’m reading a book, I’m dancing with the words as partners. When I’m listening to an audiobook, I’m watching a dance performance. I enjoy both. But the experiences are different… and there’s only one first-hand encounter that’s unique to me: my own.  But sometimes, I need to see how others dance too in order to appreciate the story or the characters more. We just may need dancing lessons every now and then.

I must give kudos to two audiobooks I finished recently. In both of them, the voice reading the text confirms how fascinating dances with words can be.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith, read by Peter Francis James:

I’m amazed how one reader can give life to characters of various cultural background in such a vivid manner. On Beauty explores in a nuanced and comical way, relationships and conflicts within a family, as well as between races, generations, and genders. It was shortlisted for a Booker (2005) and was the Orange Prize winner in 2006. Now imagine the myriad of characters.

The book describes two families intertwined in a cacophony of cultural dissonance, the fathers being academic rivals. In the Belsey family we have father Howard who is a white Englishman, his African American wife Kiki, their three youthful offspring who have grown up in America influenced by different subcultural vernaculars. Melting pot is a wrong term to describe them. It’s more like you’ve thrown classical, jazz, hip-hop, rap, all into the wok and stir fry.

Howard’s academic rival is Monty Kipps, who has brought his family from England to stay in America shortly as a visiting scholar teaching at the same college as Howard. The Kipps family members are all British citizens with Trinidadian heritage. Their two college age children have grown up in England.

The talented actor Peter Francis James has given a worthy portrayal of such a cultural mix of characters without turning them into caricatures, but has rendered them convincing and real. Zadie Smith’s nuanced dialogues and humor are well executed. It is a close encounter of dissonance in language, accents, values, and racial influences. What a dance performance this is. I have not read the book, but when I do read it, I’m sure I will not appreciate it as much if I haven’t heard the voices jumping up and down in my mind.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, read by Tim Jerome

Gilead was the 2005 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner. I read the book a few years back. Listening to the audio CD’s recently has not only brought back memory of my previous enjoyment, but insights that I’d missed my first time reading the book. All thanks to the calm, soothing, and gentle voice of Tim Jerome, portraying spot-on the ageing John Ames, Congregationalist minister of Gilead, Iowa.

Throughout the book, there’s only one character speaking, that of John Ames leaving a legacy to his very young son, telling him stories of his own grandfather and father, a family tradition of ministers. Jerome’s audio rendition of the book works in me like a devotional. His voice embodies grace and forgiveness. Listening to him can only augment my own reading experience, a performance to emulate for the dance of life.


What are some of your experiences of reading vs. listening to books? Which are your favorite audiobooks?


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

35 thoughts on “Dances with Words”

  1. OK – I hope this one works! I am a recent convert to audiobooks. Some titles lend themselves to different formats more than others. I overlooked Gilead in 2005, I think I’ll take another look!


    1. Michelle,

      I too have started listening to audiobooks only in recent years, and not keeping it up all the time, while reading has always been with me. Time saving is the main draw with audio, since I can listen while doing something else. Yes, go for Gilead in either version, I think you’ll enjoy it.


  2. This was your time to hit the jackpot with your title! “Dances with Words”, indeed.

    This is a great post. There is a difference for me between reading and listening, which your metaphors capture well. On the other hand, that very difference has led me to listen to far fewer audio books. I’m not sure what it is that doesn’t appeal – I think it’s the constant forward motion. And sometimes, after I’ve listened for a while, I couldn’t tell you one thing about the story.

    When I read, it’s quite different. I can stop, re-read, flip back, double check… It’s a much slower process. As so often happens, it comes down to personal preference, I suppose. I am glad to know about Gilead, and probably will read it. It isn’t often that Iowa gets a book!


    1. Linda,

      You know, the title came to me as I was writing the post, it just suddenly dawned on me to use the dancing metaphor. That was really a Eureka moment. While I’ve enjoyed these two audiobooks I mentioned here, there are those that didn’t quite work for me. And basically, I’m a die hard ‘real’ book fan, the paper kind, esp. with beautiful artsy covers. Nothing can substitute that. As for Gilead, it’s a must-read for you. I’m sure you’ll find it insightful.


  3. I thought Gilead was wonderful. Have read it twice. I don’t usually get too wrapped up trying to decide to say whether I ‘read’, ‘listened’, or ‘finished’ an audio book. I do think that there is a difference between reading and listening, but I think I ‘listen’ in my head when I read. Even though the audio is a performance, the listener still interprets and interacts with it. The one thing I dislike about audio books is that I do get distracted and then loose my place in the narrative. Not always so easy to backup to the correct spot to listen to it again.


    1. Anne,

      I needed the distinction because I have a ‘Book’ page on my blog, which I included both print versions and audiobooks I’ve finished. Previously my heading was “Books Read in 2012”, now I’ve changed it to “Books Finished…” which I think is most appropriate. I’m not singing the praises of auidobooks without reservations, mind you. For every one that I really enjoy, there are probably two or three that I’ve decided to give up, simply because of the sound of that voice. And yes, we can still interact with the voice, but the listener is interacting with an interpretive voice, not the original words on the page.


  4. I’m fascinated by the distinction you make between reading and listening and feel you are onto something there. I love audio books, but they have to be of a very particular type – golden age crime, in fact. Then I listen to them over and over again. I usually choose audio books I have already read first, so that the experience of listening is completely soothing, rather than a process of discovery. I know I’m very different in the ways I’ll read and listen, so I completely agree that what book s and audio books do must be very different too.


    1. litlove,

      Your way of reading the printed version first before listening to the audio is the same with my book to film process. That’s what I like to do regarding films. I’d want to know the source material first before seeing the adaptation, for major works that is. The danger of course is trying to find ‘inconsistencies’. But for audiobooks there’s no such problem cause every word is read. And yes, I agree with you, I think the genre is an important factor too in whether one enjoys listening to it or not… quite personal really.


  5. I love both reading and listening, they are different processes but I do not ascribe them different value. I’m listening to audiobooks while I’m out walking, which I do for at least an hour a day. (A nice consequence of having two dogs in the house). Lately I have been listening to “Mrs Dalloway” & “To the Lighthouse”. I’m trying to do some in-debth studying of Woolf’s work at the moment – I therefore combine the audio with the written text. One of the most positive things with audiobook is, as I see it, that I’m more free to make pictures in my head when listening.


    1. Sigrun,

      How wonderful to be able to walk for an hour everyday with a book being read to you all that time! I’ve read the print version of these two Woolf titles and just curious, the audio must be interesting to listen to. And I’m glad the voice recording can set you free to imagine as well. Thanks for sharing your view. I must hop over to your blog and see what you’ve posted about your Woolf study. I’m really curious now. 😉


  6. Being mostly a visual learner, adjusting to audiobooks was really hard. Listening and driving took further adjustment. Thankfully, I began with some terrific readers (Hugh Fraser reads most of the Agatha Christie books). With a 90 minute commute each day, I make use of the library’s offerings and have become less picky about perfect performers. Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races was read by two people since she alternates the narrative between two protagonists. One of the readers had a strange halting style (pauses in odd places) that really affected the listening. What I do love about audiobooks is that I don’t have to struggle over foreign names of cities and streets.


    1. nikkipolani,

      90 mins. is a long time to not ‘do anything’. And I know reading on the commute vehicle may not work for everyone, not me definitely. Glad you’ve found audiobooks can give you some quality time. And yes, you’ve cited a good point: we can learn how to pronounce certain words, or terms. 😉


  7. I know what you mean, there is a difference between reading a book yourself and listening to an audiobook. I’ve always considered audiobooks as having “read” the book though. That said, I am not a big fan of audiobooks because I tend to lose focus and drift off and 5-10 minutes later realize I wasn’t listening. I like having read the book myself first and then enjoying a performative reading of the work like the Harry Potter books of the Lord of the Rings. They tend to enhance my enjoyment of the work then and I don’t have to worry if I drift off for a few minutes.


    1. Stefanie,

      Not every audiobook works for me either. I think it greatly depends on the voice. Like e.g. I’ve just started listening to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and I know this one I should be reading it… which I will since I’ve got the book from last year’s book sale. But just thought I could save some time by listening to it while driving. And me too, I’d like to read the book first before seeing any performance adapted from it… major works that is, and dependent on my time too. Like, I hope I’ve time to finish Anna Karenina before the film comes out later this year. Same with Midnight’s Children, which according to plan, we’ll definitely finish by June. 😉


  8. I enjoyed hearing Pride and Prejudice read aloud, during the long gone days of two hour commutes.

    But as I hold that memory up for a second look, I’m not so sure I enjoyed the audio experience enough. One, because I’ve never listened to another audiobook again; and two, — and maybe this is most telling — when the desire to experience Pride and Prejudice hit again, I decided to read it rather than listen.

    Hmmm. Was my decision influenced by pride? Prejudice? Or just plain personal preference causing me to read for myself rather than listen to another? No matter. It’s good to have choices and I appreciate the distinction you drew between the two story experiences.


    1. Janell,

      LOL! For P & P, I’ll reread it anytime, hands down. Why? Not because of P nor P, but just because I want to have a first-hand dancing experience partnering with Jane Austen’s brilliant words… time and time again. This is a prime example of first-hand encounter with words without having received it from another. Thanks for sharing about your sole audiobook experience. You’ve shown exactly what I’m trying to illustrate here on this post! 😉


  9. You articulated really well the difference between listening and reading visually, and I completely agree. I have only tried listening to an audio book once and had to abandon that because my mind kept wandering and I had to keep going back, which wasn’t so easy compared to flipping pages and locating references. I find with reading visually, like you said, we can dance at our own pace, slow down at certain times, and move quicker at others, stop to think, even daydream a few minutes, before going back.


    1. Claire,

      You’re absolutely right… it’s always easier to flip back and forth pages than trying to find the right spot on the CD. An extension of that reasoning is my preference for printed format over eBooks. I like to mark, underline, draw, or make notes on book margins, which I can’t do on eBooks or audiobooks. I know you still can on eBooks, but not quite like the pen on paper kind of ‘artistic expressions’.


  10. Another great post, Arti! I am a huge audiobook fan and do, indeed, consider it reading. The experience is very different from sitting with a print copy (as you have so perfectly explained), so I always differentiate. In fact, it’s hard for me to recommend the print version of a book I’ve experienced on audio because the narrator is an integral part of my reading.

    My listening skills have greatly improved over the past ten years, too. I began with lighter fiction and mysteries, then branched out to nonfiction, classics, and literary fiction. I’ll often get a print copy from the library to double check names, specific quotes, maps, photos, family trees, etc.

    Audiobooks will never replace print books, but they definitely allow me to fit more books into my life …while driving, cleaning, walking the dog, etc.


    1. JoAnn,

      Thanks for sharing your view as an audiobook fan. I noted that you mentioned your ‘listening skills have greatly improved over the past ten years’, which reminds me that of course, listening is a skill the same as reading. We often take for granted that reading has to learn, but listening comes naturally. O, and thanks so much for mentioning this post on Twitter!


  11. Of course, that makes complete sense, that listening to someone read a book aloud is sort of hearing it second-hand. Valuable though, and something I keep meaning to do, since I have a 35-minute drive to work. Then I forget about it. So thank you for the reminder. I, too, am a slow reader, and a rather non-reader at the moment. I can’t bring myself to read when I get home from work, and very little on the weekend. My Kindle does not appeal to me as it once did, and even books lie getting dusty. I don’t know what’s up, but hopefully it’s just a phase.

    I really love thinking of reading as dancing with words, in fact it seems an apt metaphor for anything we give our attention to. Quite wonderful.


    1. Ruth,

      I found when I’m not in the mood to read, listening to an audiobook is one of the better ways to keep in touch with words. The most eager dancer needs a break too every now and then. Also, I tend to alternate my two passions, books and films. They do complement well… watching a film adaptation of the book could well be a whole different dance experience of the third kind. 🙂


  12. What a great post! I too love being mentally-engaged while gardening, driving, cleaning, etc. Yet I’m a little scared of the performance/interpretive aspect. I read a lot of classics, and I don’t necessarily want my first impressions to be influenced by another person’s interpretation and performance. I’ve also confessed that I will listen to books I wouldn’t necessarily read, because hey! I’ve got to do the work anyways, so it’s not taking away from my actual reading time. Here’s a post where I’ve written about my ambivalence:

    Thanks for a great metaphor and way to classify audiobooks as “finished”!


    1. Sarah,

      Welcome to Ripple Effects… my fellow Canuck. 😉 I’m glad you share my feeling about receiving from others an already interpreted engagement with the words when listening to an audiobook. Thank you for leaving a link to your post. I’ll definitely go visit. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment! Hope to hear from you again.


  13. “Dancing with Words” really struck me when you used it to talk about audio books — how appropriate. There is a difference between reading and listening. (I enjoy both), but will only listen to audio books that have just a couple of characters, otherwise I find it tough to follow.

    Gilead was a very good audio.


    1. Diane,

      Yes, I know what you mean when you’re listening to a bunch of characters from the same reader, male/female/old/young/different ethnicity. That’s why I was so impressed by the reader of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Gilead has the advantage of having just one character speaking. I’ve enjoyed both versions.


  14. Apropos “Gilead” – Did you ever read Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”?
    I’m listening to the audiobook these days, but it struck me that I might have to go back to the printed book to check some paragraphs again. Not because I have problems understanding them, but because the language is so beautiful, it reads like poetry, and I feel I need to go in depth with the words in a way that is impossible in an audiobook.


    1. I’m glad to hear that because I’m ordering that book, it’s on my TBR list. You’ve reaffirmed a crucial point: with beautiful writing, we want to dance with the words ourselves instead of just watch a performance, don’t we?


  15. I love listening to audiobooks, although I’m doing it less often these days because I want to listen to podcasts as well, and I’m torn between the two. But I find when I listen to audiobooks, I tend to respond more emotionally than when I read the text, and it’s because of having someone interpret the book for me through the narration. Somehow it makes the book more emotionally immediate and accessible. I like that experience.


    1. Rebecca,

      That is good. I’m sure audiobook readers would find comments like yours most gratifying. A similar experience for me would have to be watching a film that I feel is more enjoyable than the book… and there are examples of those. I don’t believe that the book must be better than its adaptations. 😉


  16. Hi Arti,
    I don’t have any audiobooks myself and am not particularly drawn to them but I found the distinction you drew very interesting. Alison


    1. Alison,

      I borrow audiobooks from the library and seldom buy them… you see, I’m a die hard fan of the paper version. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!


  17. This is a really nice post! 🙂

    I have never finished listening to an audio book. I like what you said about how reading a book is a first-hand encounter and that listening to it being read is already an interpretation. Kinda like a movie minus the visuals. 🙂


    1. Exactly! ‘A movie minus the visuals’… nicely put, except though, it’s usually one person putting in for the voices of other characters. But the idea still stands… it’s already an interpreted version.


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