Listening for Lent

In the old days, say, six years ago, reading for me was, simply, reading. Holding a book in my hands, read through the printed words, turned the pages manually, feeling the paper at my fingertips. But today, I have several ways to ‘experience’ a book. I can still read in the old traditional way, or download the eBook to my iPad using the app ‘OverDrive’, or, listen to an audiobook, on CD’s or MP3.

As a slow reader, I find listening to audiobooks a time-saving way, albeit I still prefer to hold a book in my hands and see prints on paper. But in this day of multi-tasking, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while driving as I can fit in my reading time. I confess, I could be distracted by the story, or the traffic. But overall, listening to audiobooks while driving is a perfect alternative for me, in lieu of time and space for ‘actual’ reading.

Recently I read an article by T. M. Luhrmann in the New York Times entitled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling. This insightful piece introduced me to a different reason for listening to audiobooks.

First off, Luhrmann takes down the generally accepted view that reading with our eyes as ‘more serious, more highbrow’ than listening to a story being told orally. She points to the early childhood experience when way before we could read, we were introduced to stories through listening to them. So maybe such a notion extends to our adult life making us feel that listening to stories is a childlike activity than reading the text on our own.

Many great books were actually oral legends, Luhrmann points out, “… for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung.” Noted. Can’t say listening to audiobooks is child’s play.

Luhrmann then comes to the crux of her idea. While we listen to an audiobook, we can do something else with our eyes and hands. That’s just obvious, isn’t it? Exactly what I said at the beginning of this post, the benefit of multitasking. But I was too rash to have thought I knew it so. What I read after this was nothing short of an epiphany for me.

No, not while driving, but when Luhrmann is gardening, she listens. Often, she would listen to the Bible. I love what she has to say next (emphasis mine):

Listening to a book is a different sensory experience than reading it. The inner imagining of the story becomes commingled with the outer senses — my hands on the trowel, the scent of tansy in the breeze. The creation of this sensory richness was in fact an explicit goal of the oral reading of the Bible in the medieval European cloister, so that daily tasks would be infused with Scripture, and Scripture would be remembered through ordinary tasks.

Whenever she looks at the “50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis in the dappled light beneath [her] oaks” she would think of “Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope.” Why, Luhrmann was listening to Fitzgerald’s novel while planting those the year before. Now looking at the plants would flash upon that inward eye what she had heard.

Of course, that sounds so simple and natural, a kind of classical conditioning, if you will. We fuse our senses and experience. All the more that we should listen to good books or we’ll have bad memories looking at the tasks we’d performed.

And what a wonderful idea Luhrmann had left me with: Scripture-infused daily tasks. That can’t be more apt for Lent.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann teaches Anthropology at Stanford.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude

The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?

Dances With Words

What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?


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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.

18 thoughts on “Listening for Lent”

  1. My husband and I have enjoyed many an audiobook together on car trips or while knitting and crocheting. I have always considered it reading. He loves to listen to and from work even though his drive is only 15 minutes. But as much as I have enjoyed a good audiobook, I still prefer to read them myself because I tend to lose focus on the story for the task I am doing while listening and then I get lost and it is not easy to backtrack on an audiobook. That’s why long car trips have been the most enjoyable audiobook experiences for me and since we very seldom take those these days I’m afraid I don’t listen to them otherwise.


    1. Yes, I’ve only listened to audiobooks in the car as you know. Somehow I still haven’t found the right ‘equipment’ or accessories to listen while doing something else. I have problems with ear buds, so that’s why. I’m not into gardening, so haven’t that experience. Maybe you’d try this spring since you’re an avid gardener and reader. But maybe like you, I’m still a ‘traditionalist’ in the sense that I like to read in solitary, focus just on the prints on page and nothing else. However, I really like the idea of hearing/seeing/doing fusion Luhrmann talks about.


  2. Arti, such a lovely post. It covers deep seated loves of my mine; namely, reading the Bible. However, this idea you highlighted brings to mind the ways I can make Bible reading more tangible. More applicable. I don’t like following a plan because then I feel I’ve lost spontaneity. But, when I don’t follow a plan I feel too loose. So, here’s the idea you present of reading while doing and thus being reminded in my daily life. Love that! xo


    1. Bellezza,

      I haven’t tried this yet. Main reason is I haven’t found an amiable voice reading the Bible yet. The app I have on my iPhone has the spoken version, but the man’s voice just isn’t warm and inviting enough. So maybe once I found a good audible version of the Bible, then I’ll try the Luhrmann recommendation. Let me know if you’ve come across any good ones.


  3. What a wonderful post!

    Like Stephanie, I can’t be doing something else and listen because I begin to close out the audiobook as background noise. With non-fiction I can sometimes walk and listen, but then I am more inclined to remember the narrator’s voice and if it was musical or not. I listened to one of John O’Donohue’s audiobooks and I remember the beautiful way he spoke and little of the content.


    1. Michelle,

      I guess we’re all traditionalists in this sense. I admit I’m not a multi-tasker in terms of reading… maybe only while driving. And when I work, I’d like to have total quiet and solitude. But I’d like to try Luhrmann’s idea though for other more menial tasks, like maybe washing dishes, or shovelling snow. LOL, we’re still doing that now, with this ‘blizzard’ today.


  4. I can’t get into Kindle-type books but to me audio books do exactly what Luhrmann describes — they tell me a story. I always loved being read to and I love to read aloud — in fact, on long road trips, I’ll read aloud while Rick is driving — it’s fun for both of us. I can read through anything. TV. Music. Arguing children. Nagging cat. But with audio books I have to pay better attention. Actually driving does that for me. I can still watch the road (especially highway) and all the rest of my attention is turned on that voice and story. It’s a good way to go!


    1. Jeanie,

      Glad to hear you have a positive exp. with audiobooks like Luhrmann has described. I admire how you can ‘read through anything.’ I find the main reason I’m such a slow reader is because I can easily be distracted, by any small sound or commotion. Can’t read with the TV on. And I can imagine how wonderful it is to go on a road trip telling stories by reading out loud. Thanks for sharing your experience here!


  5. I definitely agree that listening to the Bible is very different from reading or studying. There’s a sense that you are getting a much bigger picture when listening to a great swath of it.

    I like your take on listening for Lent.


  6. Yes, this was a lovely post, a most perfect gift from heaven above.

    If you and/or Bellezza run on to that wonderful Biblical reader, do share. I’m reading the Bible the old-fashioned way…. this week it’s Chronicles… but being a gardener who often talks to God while playing in the dirt…. it would be nice to listen for a change.

    I’ve not marked Lent, thus far, in any particular way. No giving up. No taking on. Same old, same old… the stuff of everyday-ness. But perhaps.. your words may prove to be the fork in the road… to inspire me toward greater depths and heights.

    Thank you, dear Arti, for that hope.



    1. Janell,

      O this is just a ripple from reading Luhrmann’s article. I don’t actually practice Lent in abstaining from pleasures. But I do like the idea of Lent being a period of preparation for Easter, which is too short an event of just three days. Dwelling deeper into Scriptures by listening while doing daily chores could be a meaningful thing to do. I admit I’ve yet to experience that. But that’s something I’d like to try. Luhrmann’s idea makes me think of a book I’d read ages ago, The Practice of the Presence of God. So glad to have you come by the pond. Thanks for leaving your thoughts.


  7. First I am sorry to admit but I had to Google “lent” as I was not quite sure what it is. It lasts 6 weeks they say for some Christian churches – that is a long time, at least the lent of Ramadan, if you can call it that, only lasts 4 weeks – I am not a Muslim I add, I am just a leaning Buddhist, so I am not too cognizant on these religious requirements and I feel somewhat bad about it, as in North America, everyone thinks you should know about all this, and I don’t, unfortunately, and it is rarely explained to the non-Christians.

    As you say in your post one can read a book, read it on Kindle, but you can also read free books on the Internet. As for listening to books, my husband used to when he drove to work, but now he cannot drive and is hard of hearing so he would not be able to listen. For me, I find that listening in English is harder than reading it. I can read the words but if the pronunciation is a bit different, then I don’t understand the words and the phrase is flowed. I wish I could listen to books in French, that would make a world of difference, but they are almost impossible to find here – maybe just a few classics that I have already read.

    For example I started The Grapes of Wrath. I find it so very difficult to read. The problem is that the language Steinbeck used for his characters is like a dialect – a slang from that part of the country in the 30s. I read some words, then have to read them again and again to finally get what they should mean in proper English and then I am not “in” the story anymore, do you see what I mean? Then I understand the problem the family is having but at the same time at the beginning they don’t want to lose their land because they said they took it from the “injun” or Indians with a gun – and that put me off considerably. They took the land and starved it and now have to go – well, that’s that. So I started “Images of Truth” by Glenway Wescott. He was in France at the same time as Hemingway. It will take me a while to finish Steinbeck.


    1. VB,

      Coming from a Christian ‘tradition’ that adheres to minimal rituals and not observing the liturgical calendar, in recent years I’ve developed an interest in exploring what I’d missed. I appreciate the observance of Lent not so much in abstinence from pleasures, but in drawing close to the crux of the main event, Easter.

      I totally agree with you about the diff. bet. reading the words and listening to them. I too have trouble getting what’s being said so I have to listen repeatedly. I admit it’s a nuisance trying to find that spot while driving. So I usually listen to the whole chapter over and over. Maybe as ESL users, we need to see the words to comprehend better.

      I’m sure The Grapes of Wrath is like a different language, as you’ve noted. A different place, a different time, a different culture. I’ve only watched the John Ford movie, not to long ago, but there are just too many books, too little time to read this one. At the moment, I’m reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (as I mentioned in my previous post “More Downton Ripples”) and it’s a difficult read for me too. However, I was so impressed by the BBC/HBO production that I have full intention to finish this 900 page book, which is made up of four parts like four novels.

      Thanks for stopping by the pond and sharing your thoughts and reading.


  8. I’ve tried and tried to listen to audio books while working, but I just can’t. Either I get caught up in the story, and make errors in my work that I then have to go back and correct, or I focus on my work, and end up ten minutes down the road, wondering whatever happened to this or that character.

    On the other hand, I can think like crazy when I work. That’s thinking in the sense of musing, pondering, letting my thoughts wander. And I don’t dare drive and listen at the same time. It might make for an interesting obituary, but not one I’m ready to have written quite yet.

    On the other hand, I had a most interesting experience a day or so ago that I think is relevant. One of the local radio shows I listen to now and then was using bumper music from — 1980? I think that was in. At any rate, when I tuned in, the Clapton version of “Lay Down, Sally” was playing. In less than a second or two I was right there, in the middle of that Osage County living room, literally transported into the action of the film.

    So, I see no reason it couldn’t work the other way, too. But for real enjoyment and comprehension, it still takes a book, for me. And no competition while I read from the radio or tv, either. In the same way, I can’t listen to music when I write, unless it’s instrumental. The whole subject is fascinating.


    1. Linda,

      You know, I must admit, I’m not very good at multi-tasking either… except in driving. So I usually just listen in the car, and not while doing my everyday chores, or even menial tasks. I don’t like putting in my ears those buds, somehow they don’t go well with me, falling-out easily. And I don’t like headphones. I need absolute quiet and solitude when it comes to actual working on something that needs my full concentration. I can’t even work while there’s background music. But, I think what Luhrmann has described is something beautiful, infusing Scriptures with everyday life. I love the meaning behind this idea.


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