How does someone who loves to read, who considers themselves an avid reader, end up going through long, dry spells without actually cracking open a book? This feels like the unburdening confession of a dirty secret I’ve lugged around far too long. I should have Googled sooner: It’s not just me. Read, “What happens when a lifelong reader stops reading?” by Jessica Palmer.
I think that Lisa Van Gemert grasps the root of the problem well, in her essay, “The Problem with Reading.” It isn’t that early, independent reading is bad, but that reading for pleasure is too quickly replaced with boring selections, reading for test mastery, or reading for work. When I was young and voracious and would have read anything not nailed down, from Shakespeare to cereal boxes, it didn’t matter that reading was required or that there were reading tests. It did matter, though, that I was allowed to choose. I still feel inordinate pride over proving to the elementary school librarian, that I was, in fact, capable of reading and understanding Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace – a novel that was hidden away (from me) in the Sixth Grade section of the school library. The closest my mother came, accidentally, to inducing a “reading drought” was when she stocked my shelves with Newbery and Caldecott winners – those books with little foil “seal of approval” stamps that elevated some books from the category of “tasty dessert” to “yucky, but nutritious, vegetables.” I read everything but the award winners until I was down to nothing else to read. I learned that some of them were surprisingly tasty. But they would, forever, be my last choices, on principle.
We all love work when it’s fun; we turn against fun that feels too much like work.
I suspect that a proliferation of book clubs and pretentious “must read” literary recommendations – be they from serious literary critics or Amazon verified purchasers – serve a similar purpose. When “you should really read this” sounds exactly like “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you,” some part of the brain rebels. Mine went off to the corner for a good sulk, apparently. My brain really prefers a trip to Barnes & Noble, where my eyes can drink in cover art and blurbs, where my fingers can feel the texture of pages and the weight of ideas, and where I can toss in a few chocolates or a coffee with which to luxuriate when I do curl up with a good (read, “entertaining”) book. I like to be surprised. Reviews and recommendations, helpful or not, often give away too much or set expectations too high.
The same is true of writing. So much pressure to create something of lasting, literary merit. If nothing else, reading Darren Dash’s An Other Place, last month, served to remind me that my goal was never to be studied, posthumously, by graduate students of fine, classic literature, but to entertain bored readers for a little while. I can’t pretend his odd little book didn’t do that surprisingly well. It’s still an odd little book.
The first of a three-book series of novels, Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s very similar, but unique enough that I’ve ordered books two and three. What convinced me to read the first? A contrary review. One that complained of the stream-of-consciousness writing, the handwritten notes, and the strikethrough text making it hard to read and follow. I am a fan of The Hunger Games; I enjoyed Divergent. I don’t want to read a pale clone of those books, though. Shatter Me has unique elements and it is not hard to follow at all. James Joyce is hard to follow. This? The writing was captivating; the style and layout was different, intriguing, but purposeful. Romantic scenes were steamy enough for older teens without crossing any moral lines that would make the average parent squirm. I wonder if the rest of the books of the sequel will fulfill the promise of the first; I’ll find out in a few days.
I have also ordered The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. I did purposely look for “best new novels 2018,” but then quickly scrolled a list of plot synopses until I found one that piqued my curiosity. I did not read any reviews.
There’s no point arguing whether audiobooks are as good as reading. Audiobooks are exactly like being read to, and that serves a purpose. But in order to fulfill that purpose, listeners need to focus on listening – another skill that, like reading, seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. It helps if the narrator has a voice that is clear, engaging, and capable of conveying the action and emotions of the characters in the book.
I’ve been disappointed by most narrators. They’ve left me with the impression that audiobooks are best used as sleep aids. It’s not entirely their faults. Once I realized the difference in reading speed vs. speaking speed, it made more sense. My reading speed and comprehension are above average, so the deliberate narrator always annoys me. “Get on with it, already,” I mutter. I grow bored, distracted, and forgetful. There’s some hope: I’ve learned that the narration can be speeded up. I suspect that a good audiobook, if the reader works at it, could improve listening skills. But so could a TED Talk. Nevertheless, I found an audiobooks podcast on Spotify that made me rethink my loathing of the form;
Also, I don’t think that audiobooks “count” as reading. I’m not knocking it, but it’s listening. It may be better than reading or TV for developing listening skills. It’s certainly entertaining (unless the narrator’s voice annoys you to distraction) and it may add to your appreciation of language and books – but it’s not the equivalent of reading. Research has shown that the more of us that’s engaged in the act of reading, the better – so to read while listening or being read to should be the best of both worlds. Without developing the skill of reading words printed on the page, how could we develop the skill of writing? How would we write more books? We might improve memory – to take a leap backwards, thousands of years, to a time when all stories were told, memorized, and passed along orally.
That said, I fell asleep to a podcast, on Spotify, and listened to several chapters of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan being read aloud. Now, it’s on my reading list. No movie or stage play can possibly do it justice, and it was easy to see that, just a few sentences in. Audiobooks, then, may be as good or better than the movie!
Which do you prefer: print, ebooks, or audiobooks? Why?