Monday, December 15, 2014

Reading with the Ear

I have written before about the atmosphere of reading, how the presence of books in the home, parents who read, and reading aloud to children influence our children's embracing of reading as a way of life, so I don't know why I am chagrined when my grown children, when some offhand remark about audio books occurs, comment, "The sound of my childhood." I suppose it is due to my fear that the droning of my cassette player was a barrier to my availability to them. In my husband's childhood home, the norm was instead the background noise of the television, but our own children grew up hearing the voices of my favorite narrators as I cooked in the kitchen or did housework. I do offer in self-defense, that I never had earphones or headsets on. That would have been negligence as, for a blind mother, ears are most crucial for "keeping an eye" on the children.

Listening to books has been a way of life for me, long, long before their recent popularity arose. A very early childhood memory is listening to long-play vinyl records of fairy tales and classic storybooks my parents provided for entertainment. Then there was the landmark day when my "talking book machine" arrived in the mail from the state Library for the Blind - an enormous boxy machine that played records on three speeds for special longer playing records. I think my parents were more excited than I was, because I hadn't yet understood just what an enormous world was about to unfold for me with this access to literature.

I do, however, vividly recall sitting cross-legged on my bed, utterly entranced as I listened to the opening pages of Heidi, my first long audio book, my mind creating pictures of a little peasant child bundled up in several layers of clothing to avoid hefting a trunk up the Alm. Having grown up in the flatlands of Michigan, I had never climbed such a steep ascent, but that day, I did arrive at the grandfather's hut, hot and panting, exhilarated and giddy at the expansive vista spread out before me from that height - because I had become Heidi. I lived inside Heidi throughout all her adventures and cannot now recall how many times I read and reread that book, still my all-time favorite children's book.

Thus it was that I became a reader of books through the ear, though, gratefully, I later learned to read Braille and prefer that format. Probably four-fifths of the books I read in a year, however, are still recorded books. For me, as an insatiable reader, it is a matter of survival since relatively few books are printed in Braille anymore.

While I had grown up with audio books, it was a huge adjustment for me in college to accustom myself to listening to textbooks. I paid "readers" to read aloud hundreds of pages of assigned reading and research material and absorbing all those facts was extremely challenging. I wish I could say my auditory comprehension was as proficient as that of our non-reading ancestors, but I managed only by
developing my own Braille shorthand and taking copious notes from which to study.

When I read The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I was amazed to learn that the neural pathways in the brain that are formed by the reading of print material are the same in blind readers of Braille. The tracks formed by those who read aurally, on the other hand, are not the same. Though I'm delighted with the proliferation of audio books and their wide use, this does concern me a little, especially their use with children. Children are natural story lovers, and listening to books in the car, at bedtime, or as they play is one way of infusing them with nourishing ideas. Yet the alarming decline in reading for pleasure is not being offset by this kind of reading, I'm afraid. The two kinds of reading are not alike, as I mentioned, and it concerns me that children will not develop true habits of reading if they are primarily consuming books through the ear.

Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, intrigued me with his description of earlier eras when the masses were accustomed to listen to long orations of two to four hours length, whether sermons or political speeches. In the Old Testament we read of gatherings where The Book of the Law was read aloud, and that must have taken a considerable length of time. Then there is the Sermon on the Mount and the thousands listening to Jesus' teaching all day long so that they were about to perish from hunger. Nowadays, to listen to more than a 20 minute lecture or sermon wearies the audience. This seems to indicate that our aural skills have diminished. Most people readily admit that they do not comprehend or retain information nearly as well when the format is aural rather than from printed writing.

Our children need hours and hours of practice reading with their eyes if they are to truly become readers of books. In our fast-paced lifestyle, having books in the car's CD player is convenient, and I would never discourage children from listening to books for pleasure anytime, (a definite improvement over screen time) but simply want to point out that the different formats do use different areas of the brain, and listening to books is not necessarily a substitute for holding one in the hand and reading it. 

Visual reading is a skill and a habit that takes constant practice to develop proficiency. Listening to books is akin to standing in a river while the current flows around you; reading the book for yourself is like swimming that river. Charlotte Mason said that once children could read for themselves, they ought to do so, else they would become lazy. She was not dismissing the obvious benefits and pleasure of reading aloud to one another, but simply pointing out the necessity of having children read for themselves as much as possible. In fact, I would add, though I have not searched for scientific data to back me up, that a physical person reading to a child increases their interest and absorption far more than a recorded voice. Though recorded books have their place, there is no qualitative substitute for the time and attention of sitting down to read together. Children benefit from this interaction both intellectually and emotionally.

These are just some thoughts I have had on this subject of audio books for children. I am not advocating dispensing with them, just offering some cautionary considerations for the wise and discriminate use of them. Reading is wonderful in all ways.

"He who has ears to hear," let him understand that eyes are a gift that should not be neglected.

For the joy of reading,



  1. What a wonderful post, Liz. A very appropriate warning/message, too. I am bookmarking this one for future reference when the topic arises, as it does so frequently.
    PS - Heidi was one of my absolute fave childhood books as well - and that portion of Postman's book that you described was one of the ones that made the biggest impression on me as well.

    1. Hi Dawn,
      I'm thankful the post was helpful for you and glad to know you're in the Heidi club too.

  2. I agree! I have read all three of those books and know that the seeing eye
    sees more than with audio. Your seeing eye is quite imaginative and perceptive
    too! Sometimes a very good reader makes a story more wonderful but one should read it along or do that on the second or third read. Thanks for a good post!