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?