Write Stuff – Listen Up

Once upon a time there was a certain sense of accomplishment in ploughing through tomes like War and Peace or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It took effort and focus. Now we can listen to audiobook versions instead, but are audiobooks really the same as reading?

Yes, and in some ways they’re even better.

To some people, audiobooks are a form of cheating on the literary experience. If someone else is doing half the work?forming the written words into sounds and creating the character’s voices?then all the listener has to do is passively follow the story. The assumption is that if it doesn’t take the same amount of focus, it won’t deliver the same benefits, such as comprehension.

The science, though, puts the major benefits of written and audiobook experiences on nearly equal footing. In a 1985 study, researchers at the University of Oregon found that, for adults, ?skill at comprehending written language is strongly related to skill at comprehending auditory language; in other words, reading and listening correlate highly.?

It’s not so much whether You’re getting your fix of Shakespeare in print or on your iPod, then; It’s about your comprehension skills in general. If You’re going to breeze through the Bard’s double entendres on the printed page, odds are good that you’ll understand them just as well in audio form.

In fact, the parallel between written and aural comprehension is usually set before we hit junior high. In a Forbes interview, psychology professor Dan Willingham noted that ?once you are good at decoding letters into sound, which most of us are by the time we’re in 5th or 6th grade, the comprehension is the same whether It’s spoken or written.?

Audiobooks can even have some advantages over printed books, as Willingham points out. ?Prosody? refers to the way we say things: the rhythm, the nuance, the way that a simple word like ?sure? can come out sounding friendly or sarcastic. A good reader can use prosody to help listeners understand a book much better than if they were reading it themselves. ?If You’re listening to a poem,? Willingham says, ?the prosody might help you.?

Still, there’s one possible drawback to getting your Hunger Games in audio form. As one writer put it in a New York Times article, the downside is the ?alien Other?the intervening reader who takes command of the entire text.?

And when the readers’s delivery is bad, the whole experience falls flat. In a scathing (and funny) review of the Fifty Shades of Grey audiobook, Tanya Gold finds herself subjected to the ?monotonous, whiny, joyless voice? of a narrator ?who sounds like an anxious computer reading out pornography as punishment.?

Hmm. I think I hear the sounds of a bestselling plot in there somewhere.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

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