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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Why listening to a book isn’t quite the same thing as reading one

Reading a book is different from listening to it in various ways- it’s a more active pastime and is a far more immersive experience.

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2019 11:59 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
In an audio book going back to a particular passage can be quite a harrowing process
In an audio book going back to a particular passage can be quite a harrowing process(Photo imaging: Parth Garg )

It all started because of a walk in the park. Winters in Delhi are really the only time you can indulge in this pleasure. And I was determined to do just that this year (air pollution be damned!), chalking up my daily 10,000 steps as I meandered through the paths and crooked lanes of Lodi Garden. And just like everyone else, I carried my phone along so that I could pop my earphones in and listen to some music.

That worked for a while but then I got a bit bored. And I began to wonder if it would make more sense to download an audio book and listen to it as I made my ritual perambulations of the park. After all, there is nothing I love more than reading a good book. So, listening to one would make good sense.

Well, gentle reader, I did just that. I downloaded a crime thriller by a writer who came highly recommended on the Audible app and headed out for my walk, confident that the story would keep me enthralled and one hour would pass in the blink of a second.

Sadly, it didn’t work out like that. The story began well enough but I was barely through the first few pages when my attention began wandering. My gaze fell on a flowering hedge, then moved on to a monument gently lit by the setting sun, and then to the pair of lovers entwined behind a looming tree. And before I knew it, I had tuned out the voice in my ear and was neck-deep in real life.

While reading a book, you don’t have a narrator inserting himself/herself between the book and yourself, and distorting the experience for you

By the time I tuned back into the book, I had completely lost the thread of what was going on. If I had been reading a book, I would have just flipped the pages to get back to where I left off. But it’s not quite so easy unwinding back to the right bit in an audio book, so I ended up listening to the same bit all over again.

Pay attention now, I said to myself as I finally found my place in the book. And I did just that – for the next 10 minutes or so. And then, yet again, my mind began wandering. What do I write about for my next column? What should I make for dinner? What present should I buy for my niece?

So, it was back to rewinding yet again to catch up on what I had missed. After I had done this half a dozen times, I switched back to music. Walks were too distracting to listen to audio books, I told myself. I will listen to it in bed, hearing my bedside story as if I were a child again.

But as I settled down under the covers and let the story wash over me, I found myself getting increasingly irritated by the narrator who kept – in my mind, at least – stressing the wrong words in every sentence. And when she began adopting the strangest nasal and high voices for the teenagers in the narrative, I decided to give up.

This was never going to work. Audio books clearly weren’t for me. Or, perhaps, just this audio book wasn’t. Maybe I would have better luck with another one (all recommendations gratefully accepted). But as I switched the bedside lamp back on to read a book, I began to wonder why listening to a book wasn’t quite the same thing as reading one. And these are just some of the conclusions I came to:

 Reading is a more active pastime than listening – for me, at least. When I am reading, my brain is completely engaged with the book. I am making sense of the plot, working out the undercurrents and subtexts, making my own judgments of the characters (and how they sound!) and interpreting the nuances of dialogue for myself. I don’t have a narrator inserting himself/herself between me and the book, and distorting the experience for me.

 Reading a book allows for far greater flexibility. You can go back and forth as you wish. If you want to check something that was said in the first chapter that seems more significant now that you are half-way through, no problem. You can flick back and find what you are looking for. Want to reread a particular passage because it has more resonance now that the twist in the tale has been revealed. No problem, go right back. Try doing that in an audio book without going quite mental in the process!

 Reading a book is a far more immersive experience. You can shut out the world and just concentrate on the written word. And sometimes those words can transport you to a different world altogether. Listening is not quite the same thing. Your eyes will wander, and in due course, so will your brain. And you won’t be able to sink into the story, like you would if you were reading it.

That said, I am not ready to give up on audio books just yet. I am going to persist in the hope of training myself to be a better listener. To make the task easier I have just downloaded Poirot’s Finest Cases by Agatha Christie. If Christie can’t keep me engaged, then nothing can!

Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004

From HT Brunch, January 27, 2019

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First Published: Jan 26, 2019 23:06 IST