From reading to listening

As an academic and as a columnist, I associate thinking mostly with the written word. I read books and articles, and I write for readers. I listen to music, not to the spoken word. And the columns I write — unlike the editorials I used to write for television — are meant to be read, not heard.

I have recently discovered there is a world of difference between reading text and hearing it spoken — especially by the one who wrote it. Listening to the audiobook version of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” exquisitely rendered by Ms Obama herself, convinced me in no uncertain terms that this was a superior experience to reading the book. The author’s world was palpable. One could almost hear the sounds of the neighborhood in the south side of Chicago in which she grew up, nurtured by parents who worked basically to give their children a better future.

But, even when someone other than the author reads the text, such as in the case of Tara Westover’s very personal memoir, “Educated,” the effect is different. The book narrates the life of a young girl growing in the fringes of a rural Mormon community, who didn’t have formal schooling until she was 17 because her “survivalist” parents did not believe in the educational system.  Escaping from her family, she went on to finish a PhD at Cambridge University.

Sound spells all the difference. One hears the voice of what the late American Jesuit priest and philosopher Walter J. Ong calls “interiority” — that which persons reveal to one another and by which they make a claim on the other.

I first turned to audiobooks when I started to feel I could not sit still for more than an hour reading a book. My eyes clamored for brighter light and bigger fonts. As my reading slowed down, I could sense that my brain was also groping for space. I would invariably doze off while reading a difficult but familiar work in sociology. It was affecting my writing, lengthening the hours I would spend on a column.

The shift from reading to listening was, for me, far from smooth. By chance, my motorcycle buddy, the economist Romy Bernardo, who seems to have made the transition earlier, sent me my first Audible book, Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep.” It is a scholarly dissertation on the power and mystery of sleep, an attempt to understand why we need sleep and how much of it we really need to function. For all its brilliance, I didn’t manage to finish it. I sometimes turn to it to help me fall asleep.

But, seeing that many books in my Amazon wish list were also available in audio form, I decided to open an Audible subscription using the same Amazon account I had maintained over the years. The first two audiobooks I ordered were Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” and Francis Fukuyama’s “Identity.” Though both engagingly written, I had difficulty following their line of thought through my earphones while taking an evening walk. It was all very disorienting and annoying.

My thought habits, long fastened to the visuals of the written word, simply could not adjust quickly enough to the sustained demands of the spoken word. I kept pressing the playback button, anxious not to miss anything, until I saw that it was possible to slow down or speed up the delivery of the audio material. The downside of this is the unavoidable distortion that results from altering the pace of the original recording.

But soon I became convinced it was not so much the speed of the delivery that was affecting my comprehension, but the very act itself of listening to an audiobook. This I found disconcerting and inexplicable. Books are first read to us as children, long before we ourselves learn to read. And long before I picked up the habit of reading, I had been a devoted fan of the radio. By any measure, therefore, I expected listening to be a more natural companion to thinking than reading.

As it turned out, it wasn’t going to be like that. My life as an academic had been so tightly woven around the written word that, without being conscious of it, I was writing every word of the lectures I gave. I was losing the capacity for orality, which, in an earlier time, as rhetoric, had been the lifeblood of teaching.

I think I am gradually recovering the habits of thought associated with hearing (what Walter J. Ong calls “aural thinking”) by listening to audiobooks. I would sometimes wake up in the morning earlier than usual, with no thought in mind but to resume from where I stopped listening during my extended walk the previous evening. I feel more alert to the sounds around me. While my sense of hearing has declined with age, I’m surprised I can now hear and identify bird sounds more easily.

I believe digital technology is hastening this transition from the visual to the aural. In a 1962 essay, “Wired for sound: Teaching, Communications, and Technological Culture,” Professor Ong presciently wrote: “In their whole trend, modern developments in communications, while they have not slighted the visual, have given more play to the oral-aural, which a purely typographical culture had reduced to a record minimum in human life. The sequence of development running from silent print through audiovisual telegraph to the completely aural radio is an obvious instance of increasing aural dominance.”

I could sense from my own brief experience with audiobooks that there is more to this shift in medium than meets the eye. Sight connotes distance, but sound conjures presence. The growing preponderance of the oral in communication may partly account for the viciousness evident in today’s culture of hate speech. But, in a world of things, it may also be a portent of greater human connection.