Live and let read (or whatever)

A little while back I read a short essay by a man opining on audiobooks.  He seemed very negative about them overall, suggesting that any kind of intermediary interfered with the proper communication of the book from the author to the reader.  (Or maybe the audience, in the case of audiobooks.)  He even went so far as to call it tyranny.  Particularly, he had a bug in his ear about gender because, apparently, men and women have categorically different voices.  When he reads a book by a female writer, he’s always acutely aware that it’s an act of translation.  He did unbend enough to admit that some audiobook readers manage to efface themselves thoroughly enough to serve as proper conduits for the book.  And when one is fortunate enough to hear authors read their own work, of course, it’s a near-transcendent experience.

As you might be able to tell, I found it all rather overwrought and opinionated.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of transcendent experiences.  And some authors are excellent readers as well, and no doubt hearing them read their own work is incredible.  However, I’m skeptical of this idea of a mystical channel between author and reader.  Specifically, it seems to imply a kind of omnipotent bestowal of meaning on the part of the author and a passive reception on the part of the reader (unless, of course, one is of the opposite sex of the author, in which case one must translate).  This is obviously not an accurate concept of how the meaning of texts is arrived at.  For example, this particular author is clearly not simply pouring the meaning he chooses into my head.  People spend years learning to analyze texts, and not just for the meanings authors intend to impart.  As most people know, intention and outcome don’t always match up.  The quintessential example is Ray Bradbury, who insisted that Fahrenheit 451 was about the rise of TV destroying interest in literature rather than about censorship, as basically all his readers believe.  Once upon a time I wrote a rather long paper about all this, but the short version is that authors aren’t the only people who get to define the meanings of their works – just the first people.  That’s likely why reading is sometimes referred to as a conversation between author and reader.  Meaning doesn’t just flow in one direction.

But back to the gentleman who objects to audiobooks.  I suspect he prefers his encounters with books to be private conversations between himself and the author only, and that’s why he objects so strenuously to intermediaries.  Which is fair enough; he’s allowed his preferences, and as it happens mine are the same.  That doesn’t mean everyone else’s are, however.  Around the same time I read his essay, I also read one by a blind woman who preferred the experience of listening to someone else read books aloud.  She said she enjoyed hearing the shifts of tone and cadence that showed how the reader was engaging with the book.  She enjoyed having someone else there in the conversation, and that’s also valid.  I love talking to other people about books (obviously), even if I prefer to do the actual reading by myself, and I often find I appreciate books more after hearing another perspective on them.  So, gentleman who decries audiobooks, keep in mind that a thing is not somehow inherently terrible simply because it’s not your cup of tea.

It’s also important to keep in mind that not everyone is capable of experiencing books (and other things) in the same ways.  The blind woman could read books in Braille, and that would provide the private interaction with the book that Mr. Dislikes-Audio desires.  I can’t say whether it would be exactly the same as reading a book in more usual text, though, not having experienced both – or if it is different, whether the difference is meaningful.  And there are other examples.  A family friend prefers audiobooks because she has strong dyslexia, and reading anything lengthy is a chore for her.  It’s rather rude to suggest that the way she chooses to enjoy books is intrinsically inferior just because you prefer something else.

The point is, people should be able to enjoy books the way they want to.  (I mean, unless they want to kidnap authors and force said authors to read for them.  That’s going a little far.)  If you don’t enjoy someone else’s way – so what?