Sunday, September 21, 2008

My brain on audio books

I drove to my parents house over Labor Day weekend and decided to try audio books on CD to help ease the 12 hour each way trip. The book I chose was Nancy Pelosi's "Know Your Power" which was a fairly short (3 CD's) light book, with a lot of storytelling. It helped pass the time, but I have decided I don't do well with audio books and driving. It's different from reading - I miss the page and my own pace. As the CD's wore on it was hard to pause something or replay it. The thought process is different in my head when I read than when I hear it read aloud. This book happened to be in Nancy's own voice, so it made it more personal and it was inspiring, but I felt I needed to be present with my own thoughts on the road.
I've been reading Sven Birkert's book "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age." Reading and re-reading, taking notes, writing in the margins, bending pages. I can't do that with an audio book. Sven (my Bennington colleague) also talks about information and how it is filtered differently from reading. He writes
"To read the book we must, in effect, bracket off our own reality and replace it with (insert author name). Better, we must use what we know of our world to create his. His can only exist at the expense of ours, though - this is the law of fiction. We agree to suspend our self-grounded posture, our place in the 'real' world, in order to make room for (the author's) alternative sense of things." (p. 93)
This is why I can't drive and listen to any type of fiction audio books - my attention drifts from the road, I will get absorbed in the book instead. Kind of like talking on a cell phone while driving.
What will be lost if people stop reading printed books? The brain functions differently when one reads instead of listens or watches. It is interesting to note that centuries ago, the Greeks revered oral poetry and were an oral culture. Then the printing press and the book age came along, and now we may lose it again. Birkerts quotes from scholar Oswyn Murray:
"To him (Havelock) the basic shift from oral to literate culture was a slow process; for centuries, despite the existence of writing, Greece remained essentially an oral culture. This culture was one which depended heavily on th eencoding of information in poetic texts, to be learned by rote and to provide a cultural encyclopedia of conduct. It was not until the age of Plato in the fourth century that the dominance of poetry in an oral culture was challenged in the final triumph of literacy." (p. 121)
Birkerts remarks that our transition will not require two centuries, fifty years will be enough.
I remember in elementary and high school that I lost myself in books. That was the world that was worth living at the time. It was my secret, a gateway out of my parents house and my immediate neighborhood. My favorite place to escape was the library. The fact that I could check out books for free and have access to all this information was just as good to me back then as the internet is now. It was good to be in a different place, to have something physical, to browse through the card catalog, take notes, think about things while typing before having to move them around. I think different on the computer than I do the typewriter. My brain functions differently writing longhand than it does typing. I still keep my journal longhand, and can barely read my own handwriting sometimes.
I find it easier to write notes while I am driving than to listen to an audio book. I can't imagine reading the Sunday New York Times totally on line without that paper to cuddle up with on the couch and my morning tea (and the cat on top of the paper). It seems more tangible that way, like I'm back in the library.

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