Does hearing a book meant to be read with the eye change the author’s intent—or your experience of the book? Have any books changed for you when you read them versus heard them or saw them as a movie?
I asked these questions in last month’s blog. The result was a lively Facebook conversation–and lots of strong opinions.
I’m Not Alone
Last month I noted a clear split in one of my book club’s regarding Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Those who had read the book found it disorganized and could not identify with (or even identify) the protagonist. People who listened to Tom Hanks read the book (myself included) had no issues.
Many people described similar experiences with other books.
My friend Nancy Daffner, for example, said: “When I’ve really enjoyed reading a book I rarely watch the movie as the screen writer and director interpret and change content for the screen and their vision of a good story.”
“I recently signed up for Audible to listen while I walk,” Teresa Sutherland told me. The first book I ordered was Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, which I had never read. I liked it so much when I was listening to it that I decided I wanted to actually read it because there were passages I wanted to digest more. When I did the ‘look inside’ on Amazon and read some of it, I felt like I was slogging through it and didn’t want to read it at all. Completely different feel.”
“I’ve recently become a fan of Audible and I think the experience overall is just different,” added Michelle Crunkleton. “Sometimes there are things I would have read differently than the reader I’m listening to and come away with a meaning for a particular sentence. But who’s to say which reading was more in keeping with what the author had in mind? And does it matter?”
The Narrator Matters
Many people agreed that the narrator made all the difference to the experience of listening–both for good and for bad. “Some mediocre books I have enjoyed when read by excellent readers (Simon Prebble),” noted Megan Douglas. “But the same series will have other readers, and I’ll just skip along because the reader changes the tones, voices, so much of the characters that I get frustrated.”
Having the author do the reading can also be a plus, observed Stacy Simera. “I love Malcom Gladwell’s audiobooks–partly because they are so well-written, and partly because he reads them himself,” she explained. She added that Gladwell not only has “an awesome voice, but he also knows exactly what to emphasize in particular sentences or sections.”
Conversely, as I mentioned last month, several people told me they could not listen to the audio version of Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. They disliked like her tone of the reader–the author herself. I also mentioned being offended by the narrator’s cold and cruel told in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food. This was a book my mother read with her eyes, and described as a “laugh-every-sentence” book.
Maribel Ibrahim said a narrator may distort that “voice” she often visualizes when reading novels. “I play a video in my mind of how the book is going and a voice comes with it. If the audio voice does not sound like I thought it should, the audio is too distracting,” she explained. “If I happen to see a movie first, then read the book, I usually appreciate the exposition and detail that the book has and it is more satisfying, but the ‘characters’ will be the movie characters in my brain.I’m reading Hamilton now and I keep imagining these white founding fathers as the original Broadway cast, so it’s kind of funny.”
Speed and Style
Even an audiobook narratorr’s speed and style can spoil the reading experience.
That was Janet Norman’s experience when she listened to Where the Crawdads Sing, a book she knew many people loved but found herself despising. “As an ecologist, I just found it cloying and sooooo slow,” she recalled. “When I sped the Audible version up to 1.25, it was a more pleasing pace for my NY brain, and I got through it fine.”
Lorna Strathclyde also told me she’s retreating to her hard copy to finish that White Fragility and Racism because she can’t stand the audiobook narrator’s voice. For similar reasons, she could not get into Memoirs of a Geisha despite several tries.
Pronunciation matters too. “There’s a series of books I’ve listened to, and when I buy a new one I forget that the reader consistently mispronounces a certain word the author likes to use a lot,” said Gail Joseph. “Every time I listen I promise myself I’ll READ the next one, but I always forget and get annoyed when I hear it again.”
On the other hand, a narrator’s voice can improve the reading experience. Strathclyde, for example, found James Comey’s voice so relaxing that it took her “to a different plane, adding such character that I couldn’t have conjured from the same words on a page.” And she’s similarly enjoying the “lovely, rich voice” of the narrator reading So You Want To Talk About Race.
The Privilege of Asking
In the end, does it matter? Perhaps not. Debates about whether you need to read a book according to what the author intended will likely continue as long as we have literature. So will debates about whether the author intended any specific experience, or whether it even matters.
We don’t necessarily have to get the same things out of every book. In fact, it’s impossible for any two people to do so.
Perhaps the most important take-home from all this, however, was my friend Lyn Page’s point. She noted that those of us who have the choice to choose between reading and hearing a book are lucky. “Those with disabilities which require hearing a text rather than reading it are simply glad to have that option.”
Indeed. Anyway, happy reading to everyone, however you choose to do it.