Sunday, July 18, 2010

Close Listening by Sven Birkerts — What is the problem with audio books ?

I was so deeply moved by a chapter of Sven's Birkerts „The Gutenberg Elegies” named „Close Listening” that I decided to commit a post — just about this chapter. As for the book itself, I hope to finish and comment on it during holidays, i.e. next week.

It is apparent, from the first sentences of the chapter, that Birkerts is against audio books. He gives a number of strong arguments. Let's see them here....

Passivity of audio books:

„Books, for me, have always been about covers and pages and grappling with the syntactical rigors of stationary prose. The passivity of listening seemed to me on a par with the passivity of television watching. How could it fail to reduce any work of merit to, at best, a companionable blur, a string of easy cadences in the ear?”

Confusion of experience.

He criticises the special effects that are sometimes added to the recordings (calls them tacky effects); but was is more important criticism is the confusion of our physical experience during listening, experience of driving, walking, commuting with the imaginative world of the story we listen to.

Limitation of the medium.

Sven maintains that certain literature is well perceived only through text:

„Our more serious literature incorporates levels of difficulty — in narrative sequence, referentiality, syntax, and linguistic density — and presupposes a reader who is free to hover over a phrase, reach for a dictionary, and dart back.”

Irrelevance of the recording pace to the text.

Sven gives examples, where the pace of narrator reading, being regular and uniform, was completely irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Descriptions, dialogues are usually fine, but when a book turns into some philosophical conjectures — the same pace is just unbearable:

„We don't just speed a thought through our neural network — we inhale it, hold it, wait for it to send ripples through the whole of our being. Rewinding the tape is no solution.”

Difficulty with deep reading.

„Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulses; the term I coin for this is
deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don't just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. (...) Deep listening to words is rarely an option. Our ear, and with it our whole imaginative apparatus, marches in lockstep to the speaker's baton”

Powerlessness of the listener.

Sven claims that when we hear a book we are deeply silenced by the vocal tyranny of the narrator:

„The listener is powerless against the taped voice, not at all in the position of my five-year-old daughter, who admonishes me continually, "Don't read it like that, Dad." With the audio book, everything — pace, timber, inflection — is determined for the captive listener. The collaborative component is gone; one simply receives.”

Sexless voicing.

The books read by male narrator lose the female character, if it is of importance and conversely, the manly dialogs read by a woman sound strange:

„Cheever's prose is as imprinted with his gender as Virginia Woolf's is with hers. Nor could I get past the bright vigor of the performing voice; I missed the dark notes, the sense of pooling shadows that has always accompanied my readings of the man.”

Abridgement of books kills their message.

Svens notices that too many of audio books are just bad abridgements. The arbitrary selection what to include what to leave out is usually killing the perception of the book. He gives an example of „Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry:

„Lowry had meant his novel to turn like a wheel; everything in it is keyed to the concept of circularity, making chapter one absolutely indispensable . No amount of civilized gnashing by reader Christopher Cazanove could make up the

Multitrack sensibilities required.

Listening to audio book, requires a good deal of multitracking sensibility. This is in opposition to „single-track tasks demanded by the silent page”. What is more, it can create a shift or change in the way authors write today: „... is is not farfetched to suppose that a good part of future of literature will be bound up with the audio process.”

Despite all these remarks, the chapter ends with some positive remarks.

Sven recalls listening to James Joyce „The Dead” which he found great in the audio format. Basically he values the rendering of some short stories (by authors like Updike, Welty and Carver) in audio. He also notices that sometimes the good reader opens the deeper understanding:

„An evocative reading can capture the shifting tension that exists between sound and sense; it can unearth the overlooked sentence rhythm and whet the blade of irony. Reading is different from listening, yes, but in listening's limitations I have found unexpected pleasures.”

He ends it with these words:

„In the beginning was the Word — not the written or printed or processed word, but the spoken word. And though it changes its aspect faster than any Proteus, hiding now in letter shapes and now in magnetic emulsion, it remains. It still has the power to lay us bare.”

What do you think?

I'm passionate audio book listener, so this chapter requires me to comment and, more specifically to argue. But I will do it at some later time, maybe after your opinions...

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to read this - I agree that audio books do have limitations. But paper books do, too! There is a magic to hearing a book read, or a story told. Voice can convey so much. The advantages of audio books are many - I hope you will name your views too? I think that there is value - and room in the marketplace - for both 'media'.