Now, Read This

On Thursday, I was meandering around in Totnes, a few miles from our new house in Dartmouth. With a reputation for being a bit “hippie-ish” (although Woodstock, NY it is not), it is inland a few miles up the River Dart:

[Fore Street, Totnes, Devon. Photo by me, September 1, 2022.]

Walking on Fore Street – a major road – above, I came upon the East Gate Bookshop. Knowing the town as of yet only generally (and mostly by car), I had not seen the store before. You will probably not be surprised that I could not resist…

[Summer, by Edith Wharton. Photo by me, 2022.]

If I go inside an independent bookshop, I almost always make a purchase. In the small and pleasant store (which has a surprisingly broad stock), I picked up that Edith Wharton with its perhaps appropriate title (as a word) given it was September 1st: Summer.

[Summer, by Edith Wharton. Photo by me, 2022.]

It is not a long novel and is a relatively “quick” read. I have a public domain copy on my Kindle. I admit I do often much more enjoy reading a well-crafted paper version of any book.

On the subject of reading, I happened to see this later that same day on Instagram:

[From a James Pamson, citing a tweet by a Neil Gaiman, on Instagram.]

“For anyone who needs to hear this”: I don’t know if that is accidental from that “James” the Instagrammer in the caption or consciously meant to be sarcastic. We are all obviously “reading” that comment and not “listening” to it. Regardless, I find the so-called “debate” about “reading” audiobooks wearying.

Understand, there is nothing wrong with enjoying audiobooks. Millions we know do. I am asked now and then when my novels will be available as audiobooks. (Answer: I do not yet know.)

Audiobooks are often listened to if one cannot for some reason simply find the time to sit down and read the book – such as when we are driving. We know too that being driven in a car is of course not to drive the car yourself. Similarly, *listening* to Rosamund Pike *read* you Pride and Prejudice is not you reading it any more so than watching her 2005 film version is you reading it…

The core definition of literacy is being able to read the written word. Braille is merely a touch means for the blind to access writing and thus join the sighted in being literate. So it is lazy and even obnoxious in my opinion to try to assert – as that tweeting Neil Gaiman does – that given those who have trouble seeing may use braille, that fortunately-sighted people like us choosing to listen to a book being read to us is somehow the same as us reading that book.

I am sorry to have to point this out here, but that latter is nonsense: Listening is NOT reading.

Although it seems this “academic” – also noted in that Instagram post and retweeted apparently as “support” by that same Neil Gaiman – would likely give me an “F” for daring to state so:

[From a James Pamson, citing a tweet by a Dr. Emily Friedman, retweeted by a Neil Gaiman, on Instagram.]

That just above is a prime example of why so many distrust those in higher education. An apparent “book historian” who employs the expression “literally reading” in applying it to listening? Moreover I find it distasteful to see a citing of academic credentials as serving as some sort of “argument clincher” while pushing a clear distortion.

Yes, reading was at times a more “group” and “aloud” activity in “1797” than it is now. One has merely to note that in novels written before broadcast radio started to appear around 1920, that they were often written to aid in being read aloud. To assist a reading speaker there are usually more commas and pauses to “take a breath” than we, more likely to read silently, tend to use when we write novels today.

It is vital to remember too that many who listened to novels being read in the late-1700s were by our standards basically illiterate: they could certainly speak and generally understand conversation, but they themselves could read only simple phrases or even perhaps none at all. Non-upper-class women in the late-1700s in particular were much less likely than men to be able to read complicated text. So to enjoy literature many had no choice but to listen to someone else – often Father – read aloud to the family as bedtime approached. Jane Austen, who was minor gentry and had been as a woman fortunate (and given the novels she would write, also for us) to have been taught to read and write, reading aloud one of her stories to the family in the sitting room was only Jane actually reading. To those listening to her, it was entertainment; they listened to a novel being read much as we listen to radio or even watch Netflix.

Yet “solitary” reading certainly was not invented last week. You may be reading this on your phone/tablet with your husband, wife, or others sitting nearby as they too wordlessly look and swipe at their own devices. Similarly in Austen’s time it was also commonplace to read a book in a room silently alongside others doing much the same:

[From Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 11, by Jane Austen (1813). Public Domain.]

In “1797” books were compared to now also expensive and even treasured items that usually only the well-to-do could afford. With no outside entertainment “transmitted” into your home unlike today, you made your own entertainment. Reading – whether privately or in groups aloud – for those lucky enough to be able to read and who lived in a home affluent enough to own books, was one means of it.

Some in our 2020s insist on trying to twist themselves into definitional knots in seeking to uncover some pathway to declare that listening to a book being read is the same as reading it yourself. I detect that effort stems from a touchiness and sense of “inferiority” in some audiobook users. (Notice that “James” the Instagrammer’s emphatic use of the word “valid” as a form of reading.) They seem to feel audiobooks are “looked down” upon as somehow not as challenging as reading the written word yourself.

Well, to be honest, listening to book being read to you is certainly a far more passive activity than actually putting in the effort and concentration to read it yourself. Yet this does not have to be a “competition.” Listening to a book being read as many did before the invention of entertainment such as radio, is FINE as a choice, and is even extra-helpful for many – especially for those whose eyesight may not allow for easy reading of the actual written word.

As with reading the written word, listening to the written word being read is just another form for us, as it was for those in “1797,” of entertainment. Next, with you having read all of that written by me, after I have another coffee I may have a read of some of that Edith Wharton novel. LOL! Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂

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