Ways of Seeing by Ruth Farmer: Still no good substitute for reading

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of reading. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the act of reading the printed book. I became an avid reader at a young age. I read just about anything, including science fiction, comic books, and my mother’s romances and mysteries.
In recent years, I have gone through a period of needing to force myself to focus long enough to attend to words on the page. Audiobooks, videoconferences, phone seminars, emails, and other short bursts of communication have kept me tuned in to words. However, I had lost patience with reading — with my eyes — anything of substance. I’ve got nothing against ebooks and audiobooks. However, I missed the tactile pleasure I received when reading from a printed book.
What caused me to stray from the printed word? It’s difficult to say. As an educator, I spend a lot of time reading from a computer screen: emails, reports, student papers, articles. Reading becomes transactional in these instances; as in: What point is the person trying to make and when are they going to get to it? That approach is necessary when you are trying to compile information for a report. It doesn’t work so well when you read for pleasure.
I’d pick up a novel and start to read a paragraph and within a few sentences, instead of enjoying the descriptions, characters, or plot device, I’d find myself wondering what point the author is trying to make. After all, I was spending my time reading the book; it should pay off.
Reading takes time and focus and if it isn’t pleasurable, why bother? I can’t even believe that I wrote that. I love to read and own hundreds of books (even after giving away and recycling hundreds). Yet, I felt I didn’t have the time to read.
Then I discovered audiobooks. I listened to a book while gardening, exercising, or staring at the landscape, convinced that I was imbibing the knowledge, information, or experiences of the book while focusing on something else. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was not fully enjoying the book or the accompanying activity.
Audible.com’s tagline is “Listening is the new reading.” It’s clever and appeals to those of us who like books and have the habit of multitasking. Still, listening to a book and reading it with your eyes are not the same.
Several years ago, I experienced three versions of “Winter’s Bone”: the movie, the audiobook, and the novel, in that order. I watched the movie because I liked the description on the DVD cover: a teenaged girl goes on a quest to find her father and save her family (much more profound but that is the gist). After watching the movie, I was curious about how closely it aligned with the book. The local library only had the audiobook. Later I read a print copy.
Jennifer Lawrence’s acting brought glaring reality to the protagonist’s circumstances. The other actors (and the setting) vividly conveyed the poverty and violence in the Ozarks. As for the audiobook, the narrator’s performance was a tad too flat and uninspired. When I read the book, I marveled at the genius of Woodrell’s writing. There was not one unnecessary word in the entire novel (It is 208 pages). I haven’t read anything that spare and marvelous since Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. The experiences were totally different.
There is the visual aspect of reading that is not present when listening to a book. A few months ago, I listened to “Anne of Green Gables” (Don’t ask). What I enjoyed most about the experience was Kate Burton’s narration. What a performance! I laughed out loud at Burton’s depictions of the loquacious orphan and her taciturn foster father. When I skimmed through the novel, I lost patience with the lengthy paragraphs (brilliant though they were) filled with Anne’s breathless, interminable monologues. Reading “Anne of Green Gables” felt like a chore. Listening to it was a delight.
After listening to Sam Harris’ lecture on spirituality, I listened to his book “Waking Up”. Its premise is spirituality exists without religion. Harris is a fascinating guy to listen to because he speaks in sentences that require dashes and semicolons. Listening to his book, I sometimes had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps I would have absorbed more if I read the print version.
For complex ideas, I like to re-read sections. In audiobook format, that can be a cumbersome process. In his article, “Preliminary Phenomenology of the Audiobook,” Matthew Rubery notes that the audiobook has “its own rhythm and pace” and “proceeds at the same inexorable rate while the audience drifts in and out of attention.”
Listening and reading serve overlapping purposes in that they are forms of communication. So are dance and music. Music is never going to be the new dance, nor will dance become the new music. They are artistic expressions that touch our souls and our hearts in different ways.
Audible.com’s slogan is clever. Still, listening is listening and reading is reading. Audiences can appreciate and welcome multiple representations of a work of art. We don’t need to be seduced into thinking that one replaces the other.
So I have returned to reading print books with intention and attention. It has taken patience but I am enjoying a variety of genres, including mysteries, memoirs, and fantasies. I just started reading Jill Lepore’s “These Truths: A History of the United States”. It’s a 960-page tome, but I have built up my reading muscles, and I am up to the challenge.
Ruth Farmer  is a published essayist and poet. She directs the Goddard Graduate Institute in Plainfield, and is sole owner of Farmer Writing and Editing (ruthfarmer.com).

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