Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Make the time.

By Jay Stringer

I get audiobooks. I do. It's a fun experience. Having a professional performer read a story to you is an interesting way to experience it. As an adaptation, it's just as valid as seeing a film or a stage play.

But it isn't reading the book.

Hell, Darwyn Cooke is an amazing comic book talent, and his second PARKER adaptation, THE OUTFIT, is coming out next month. Reading it will be a wonderful experience. It will be the chance to see an artist and craftsman take Stark's story and find a new way to tell it. A blending of the words with fresh images, with an exciting colour palette, and with the illusion of movement between panels that only the best can produce.

But it isn't reading the book.

I'm sure there's some deep part of us that misses the times when we could lay in bed at night and have someone read a story to us, or the times we sat around a campfire as someone trued to thrill or scare us with their words. Verbal storytelling is one of the oldest traditions we have and, as pretentious as it sounds, I'm sure audiobooks tap into that in some small way.

But it isn't....well you get the idea.

Reading the book is having a relationship with the words on the page. With the look, feel and smell of the book in your hands, or these days with the glow of the e-reader. It's not just about the story that the writer wants to tell, it's about how it's done. How are the words arranged on the page? How short are the sentences? Do they look like some strange work of art when you stare at them.

We may never put our finger on what, exactly, a writers voice is, but part of it is formed in that strange alchemy of arranging words in a particular way on a blank page. Having a good idea is not the same as being a good storyteller, but this doesn't come across in audiobooks because you're not reading the book. You're listening to someone else read it to you. Their voice is getting in the way, their tone and mannerisms are filtering the words. Sure, the books original author can narrate the audiobook, and that's as close as you can get. But it's still only close. Its still a totally different experience. How many times have you attended an authors reading, heard the way they read the words, and found that it doesn't match the way the words flowed in your head?

We each form our on bond with those words on the page. It's why reading is so much fun, it's a truly personal thing. A roomful of people can sit and read the same text but have totally different experiences.

I've had many recent conversations with people who talk to me about books that they've read, only to find out that they've not read the book. They've listened to a version of it. It's like watching the film adaptation of THE PRINCESS BRIDE and then having an opinion on the book. Inconceivable.

My favourite audiobook of all time might actually be THE PRINCESS BRIDE. An old cassette version, narrated with great humour by Rob Reiner. It was the good parts of the 'good parts version,' and I wore that tape out in my teenage years. In fact, I think I listened to that before ever reading the book. And i'd watched the film before listening to the audio. Each one was a different experience, but only the book was the really personal one.

I understand the time argument. I do. People listen to audiobooks in their daily commute, or at the gym, or on a long holiday drive across country. It's a chance to enjoy the story whilst doing something else, and it can be very easy, very tempting, to begin relying on that for your 'reading.' Except that it's not reading.

Nobody said it would be easy. We get older, we gather people, and jobs, and hobbies and chores. What we find is that time becomes reeeeeeally important. But do the book a favour; make the time. Find the personal bond with the words on the page.

Recently I bought a bike so that I could cycle the six mile round trip to work each day. It would get me fit in a hurry, and that's important to me. But i'm not willing to give up that twenty minutes on the bus when I can sit and read. At my day job I don't have access to my books. And when i'm at home i'm working on my writing, or a website, or a podcast, or living my life. Those two bus trips each day are when I make the time.

Not everyone can take the bus. Not everyone can make time the same way. But if you take one thing from my many angry rants in this here interworld, make it this. Make the time, somehow.

I preach it at the day job, and not always to great success. I'm sure many of you have had the same conversation, sat with someone telling you that they spent two hours looking for something to watch on the telly, but looking at you strange if you suggest turning the damn thing off and picking up a book.

A film might leave you cold, but the book might get you hot in a hurry. You might love an audiobook, but then find you hate the book. On the other hand, you might listen to a story being narrated and find it dull or lifeless, but then find that the page somehow makes the same story take off. It's one of the best magic tricks around.

Anyone with me? Anyone else want to go and tell a few people in their lives to make the time?
And how do you do it? What little sacrifices do you make in order to sit and read? What tips and cheats do you have for anyone out there struggling with the same problem?


Ray Banks said...

Absolutely. Listening to an audiobook isn't reading. In a lot of cases, it isn't even the whole book, and what there is is coloured by the performance given. And "not having time" is the worst excuse I've ever heard - it also seems to be confined to not finding time to read, too. People seem to easily find the time to watch TV or sit on their arse shoving cake in their mouth - I know I do. People might want to keep on about "the reading experience CHANGING", but it's really not - it's still words on a page, not a voice in the lughole.

And as for making the time, I'm a commuter, too. Forty minutes a day adds up. I used to get through a book every couple of days when I had the hour commute each way.

Jen Forbus said...

I do both. I make time to read a printed book by reading during my lunch break at work, reading before bed, not watching television - at all. But I also listen to audiobooks. I listen while I work out, work in my garden, wash dishes, drive to work - I get car sick if I try to read in a moving vehicle.

And I'll argue the point about story because story is where everything originated...before there was print and paper and bound books there was story. There has always been story. And there have always been story tellers. And yes, they've affected the story, they've even changed the stories as they've been handed down. That's part of the beauty of language.

I also have an e-reader. And a book in an e-reader can LOOK completely different than a book on a printed page. So how does that affect the "way words appear on the page"? It's a different experience to feel and smell an e-reader than it is to feel and smell a printed book.

Processing meaning and symbolism and character and...well WORDS isn't done simply through the experience of looking at them but rather through the art of interacting with them. And to think that the only way you can properly do that is to hold a book or a device in your hand is short sighted. I've had far richer conversations with some people who experienced the book on audio than others who read the book in print.

I love that I'm literate. I have an absurd number of printed books in my home and I cherish those books. But I also adore my experiences listening to great books narrated by a wonderful performers on audio. I feel I'm a richer person for experience both.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As much as I loved the film WINTER'S BONE it was not as good as the novel because it lost Woodrell's voice. And in a way I have the same problem with audio books. The voice becomes the actor's. He decides many things you might have decided for yourself.
He puts a spin on it. But audio books have their place. Driving as you said but also cleaning. Listening to a book while I clean makes it go so much faster. Trivial but it has to be done.

Jay Stringer said...

Ray and Patti, i agree on all counts. i'll even go and learn to count to a higher number so that i can agree with you more.

Jen, thanks for posting. Not really sure there is a point to argue on story though, because we're not talking about where everything originated from, we're talking about books.

Believe me, i have no issue with audiobooks per se. They're a fun experience and like i said, a valid one. But they are not 'reading.' By their very nature they are engaging in a different way.

Story is great, however it's the storytellers that make it. The same story told by two different people will be two different experiences. That's great, that's part of the tradition. But it's also the problem i'm getting at here.

I'm not saying the only way to interact with words is through the page. What i'm saying is that the only way to read a book is in the form the author wrote it.

The authors voice is surely to be found in the place where they left it -be it a novel, comic, album, film, whatever they first told the story in- and when we filter that through a film or an audio book, we are changing that. It's then as different as if two people told you the same story. It's filtered through someone else's voice.

If a story teller chooses to give you their work through audio, then that is the source. If a story teller chooses to give you their work in print, then the print version is the source. Everything else after that is adaptation and, while they can be interesting experiences and fun interpretations, they are not reading the book.

Steve Weddle said...

I don't have time to listen to audiobooks.

Jay Stringer said...

thats because you're busy making me coffee, right?

Anonymous said...

In the mists of antiquity when my children were still young, we were ensconced in a cozy little three-bedroom house. Since two of our kids have autistic spectrum disorders, the house became cozy the way a city lockup is cozy on a full-moon Saturday night. The only place I could find the peace necessary to actually focus on a book was the bathroom. So I swapped showers for baths and read nightly in the tub to this day. A little booze, a hot bath, a good book -- yeah, it's decadent. Sure, it's indulgent. But the door has a lock and nobody gets to bother you there. Plus, since I often read for an hour of more, I'm very, very clean. For a dirty old man.

Naomi Johnson said...

My preference every time is for the book. However, some people can't. It isn't always a matter solely of time. I know several people, adults, who enjoy a good story but simply don't possess adequate literacy skills to make reading a book anything but a chore.

I have, on rare occasions, actually enjoyed an audiobook more than the book, thanks to a fine, perfectly suited narrator. Reading and listening are such very different experiences and I value having the option to do either.

Jen Forbus said...

Ah, but Jay, your argument comes right back on itself. The storyteller may put the words down on the page, but how a reader reads it is entirely up to him/her. They may miss the author's mark just as likely as a narrator misses it. And likewise, two different people listening to the same audio book can hear different stories based on their own experiences they bring to the table, based on their previous knowledge, based on biases. That isn't dependent on how the words are aligned on the page. Look at how many different ways Shakespeare can be interpreted. And now that he's dead, does it really matter what HIS precise interpretation was? Isn't it more the discussion and thinking we can create because of it?

But to say this isn't about story is kind of silly because without story a book is nothing; without story, an audiobook is nothing. In the end, it's all about the story.

When I taught English I had many students who couldn't comprehend well because they couldn't process what they were "reading." They sounded out combinations of letters on the pages but processed nothing about the meaning of the words that those letters created. So, yes, "reading" involves looking at letters that form words that form sentences that form...well, you get the point. But ultimately, that's far from what it's all about. And whether a person chooses to comprehend a story by printed form, spoken form, or performace, it doesn't matter so much to me. I'm interested more in how they have internalized it and digested it.

Would I love for everyone to love reading as much as I do? Absolutely. Would I pass judgement on them or tell them something else in their life isn't as important as reading a book? No. It's important to me. And that's as much as I'm allowed to be in control of.

Jay Stringer said...

But again Jen, i'm not quite sure where this larger argument about 'story' is coming from. This is a very specific thing i'm talking about; the best way to read a book.

Followed by the best ways to make time to read that book.

'Story' is a great topic, one that we could all discuss at length, I've written many times on here about my dyslexia so you're preaching to the converted about the different ways of telling and digesting a story. But again, that's not what i'm talking about here.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

As an actor, I tend to be more aware of the person reading the book to me than of the story on an audio book. Maybe that's just me. I am always thinking about the inflections they use and the story telling techniques they employ with their voice. Because of this, it distracts me from the book itself.

I will also admit that there are times where the audio might be better than the book for this same reason. George Carlin's book probably wouldn't get as many laughs in print as it would on audio because George Carlin is doing a stand up routine on the audio...the paper just doesn't compare. Wait - I think I just proved my own point with that one. Cool!

Jay Stringer said...

You're right Joelle, Carlin's book wasn't as effective as his routine. With a show all about the rhythm and useage of language he needed to be in full flow.

That's the same thing in reverse; the author's material is at its best in its intended form.

Chris said...

I think it's kind of a no brainer that the only way to read a book is to READ it. Another no brainer is that reading the book isn't the only way to EXPERIENCE it, and who is anyone to tell anyone else that their experience is the best experience?

As a writer, I'd be thrilled no matter how a person chooses to interact with what I'm working on. As a reader, I prefer to read the printed page. I like audiobooks, but really only for nonfiction. I like comics, but prefer them best in trade collections (especially now that so few do one-and-done stories, or avoid massive crossovers with other issues).

I don't feel like I make time for reading. It's something I enjoy, and time every day for doing it is like making time to eat -- it's just got to happen! Thankfully my wife is a reader too, so there is time every day in our life together where we sit next to each other, reading. We share passages from books, articles from magazines, everything.

And we don't watch a lick of TV.