Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?

14 thoughts on “Listening to a book

  1. Hardy and I listened to an audio book once on a trip to Ontario and we really enjoyed it. Can’t even remember what book we listened to but it was a good story. Always wanted to repeat that experience, but have never done so.

    • Road trips seem the perfect opportunity to listen to a book. And to listen together. Perhaps on your next one to Ontario you’ll do it again! (I’ve read books aloud to H on road trips, but maybe next time I’ll let someone else do the reading too.)

  2. I’ve been thinking about this, too. I like both. Definitely different but mostly because of what I’m doing while listening. Reading doesn’t let me do anything else but focus on the page. What an indulgence! But I like long road trips with audio books and the sound of a confident storyteller. When walking, though, I prefer to let my mind meander. Great to have choices.

    • Sounds like you’re used to moving between the two kinds of book experiences, depending on what you’re doing. Ah, long trips! Will we ever take them again? Thanks for the reminder about choices. We certainly have them, don’t we.

  3. I really resonate with your experience. I haven’t sought out the listening experience, but also recently began to use Audible. Because of the new ways I am spending time these days, it somehow feels different to me to listen right now. I think that whereas my senses were perhaps over-saturated in my life before pandemic, I now have a bit more enjoyment in having a voice reading to me instead of a book in my hands. And also, perhaps it’s that I too am focusing differently. I’m using Audible when I walk, and am presently finding myself engaged with Sue Monk Kid’s new book The Book of Longings. I think that I still prefer sitting and holding a book, which I also did this afternoon. One thing I like less with both Audible and Kindle is that it feels more cumbersome to find my way back to a passage I want to re-read.

    • Since this was my first time with a book, though I’ve long listened to podcasts and so on, I didn’t link the listening experience to the pandemic time, but I think you’re right about where our senses are now. and how that may contribute to the difference. Thanks for that observation.

  4. I haven’t found the right application for audio books yet. I sometimes get an audio book via my Libby app from the public library e-book collection. But I don’t have a long car ride. I’ve loaned out my only 1000-piece puzzle.The one audio book I listened to was a speculative fiction novel — hard enough to piece together when you can go back and check previous hunches. Not a satisfying experience.

  5. The first audible for me was Becoming by Michelle Obama, which is read by her personally. It felt so remarkable to “feel” her being present.
    i wish my husband enjoyed such as well, so we could listen together on road trips, which (in normal times) are/were frequent for us, but that is a no go.
    i agree with the comment:
    “One thing I like less with both Audible and Kindle is that it feels more cumbersome to find my way back to a passage I want to re-read.”

    • So sorry Annegret, somehow I missed seeing this comment! Thank you! I very much enjoyed “Becoming.” There is, like you say, a real sense of felt presence in a voice. I wonder if you’ve seen the documentary about the book and her road trip to talk about it. Inspiring!

  6. You have such a way of describing this new experience for you. Rick favors audio books, especially on a road trip by himself. Generally, he is an auditory person and remembers what he hears. Not so for me..
    I get easily distracted when listening to a book; my mind wanders off. Definitely reading for me, or watching the movie😉

    • Interesting, the “learning” styles of different people. Rick’s gift or style, whatever you call it, must have been a distinct asset in his professional life. – Ah, and then movies versus books. Another whole discussion. 🙂

  7. I’ve found I have no desire to listen to an audible book, which is interesting because I loved listening to radio programs when I was a kid. I asked myself why the disinclination, and the answer–What would I do with my eyes? If I were traveling, yes–or engaged in a task like ironing, then Yes, which seems to tie in with your finding that doing a jigsaw puzzle helped you listen.

    • And nowadays there just isn’t enough ironing to last many pages! I still enjoy radio, as I’m suspect you do, while driving or cooking. Snatches is usually all it amounts to.

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