Audiobooks bring back storytelling

The ferns under my oak trees evoke moments from "The Great Gatsby" for me. I read the book many years ago, but I listened to it last summer while planting 50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis in the dappled light beneath my oaks.

Now, when I look at them, I think about that last awful accident, the yellow Rolls-Royce screaming past the repair shop, and what F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator called Gatsby's extraordinary gift for hope.

The sale of audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2012, total industry sales in the book business fell just under 1 per cent over all, but those of downloadable audiobooks rose by more than 20 per cent.

That year, 13,255 titles came out as audiobooks, compared with 4,602 in 2009. Publishers seem to be paying more attention to their production. When Simon and Schuster published Colm Toibin's "Testament of Mary" last autumn, the narrator was Meryl Streep.

We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a
book read out loud.

Listening to a written text harkens back to childhood, when we couldn't read it ourselves, or a time when our parents left off reading the chapter out loud in the middle, a nudge that we'd use our school-taught skills to finish it off by ourselves.

The great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure thought we treated writing as more important than speaking because writing is visual. Speech is ephemeral — you hear a word, and then it is gone. The word written down remains, and so we attach more significance to it. Saussure wrote that when we imagined text as more important than speech, it was as if we thought we would learn more about someone from his photograph than from his face.

But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung.

We think that the Homeric singers of those tales mastered the prodigious mnemonic task presented by those thousands upon thousands of lines of text through an intricate combination of common phrases — rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea — and nested plots that could be expanded or shortened as the occasion demanded.

Even after narratives were written down, they were more often heard than read. The Roman elites could read, but gatherings at which people recited their poetry were common.

And before the modern era, when printing made books widely available and literacy became widespread, reading was an oral act.

People read aloud not only to others but also to themselves, and books, as the historian William Graham puts it in "Beyond the Written Word," were meant for the ears as much, or more so, than for the eyes.

I find that when I listen to a story, instead of reading it on a page, my memory of the book does change.

I remember more of the action and less of the language, although sometimes when I listen a sentence will drop into my mind and shock me into attention in a way that is less common when I read. (Mind you, it helps to have a good reader.)

You don't check back on previous paragraphs or read the last page first when you listen. You move forward, and what you carry with you is person and event.

I listen the way I read books as a child, as if I were there watching. The author becomes more transparent, the characters more real. Listening to "Bring Up the Bodies," I don't think, what is the author, Hilary Mantel, up to?

I feel the threat of death damp on my skin.

And when I have listened to a book in a particular place — the ferns beneath the oak trees — I remember the book when I come back to that place, as if my hands in the soil were digging up the words.

The New York Times News Service


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