Reading with My Ears

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My sister Mary recently told me about listening to Snow Falling on Cedars with her 14 year old son. He needed to finish an abundance of school assigned reading and had fallen behind, so she checked out the CD’s for the long holiday drive to his grandmother’s house.

“I didn’t remember the sex scenes from when I last read that book,” Mary said.

She noticed them while driving with her son. At first she thought she could manage to listen with him but soon decided to fast forward. She ended up skipping several sections even at the risk of missing any important plot details.

I hadn’t remembered those scenes, either. As my sister and I started talking about how listening to a book is different from reading the book, I realized some of why I often like listening better.

When I listen to a book, I am forced to sit through every word. This is why Mary had such a hard time with the sex scenes and also why I have a harder time with the violence in audio. When I read a book, I can zip through these parts, looking for important plot pieces but not absorbing every detail. Over the years, I’ve become a terrific skimmer. Often this is because I have a long swath of boring information to wade through for my day job, for a mortgage, or for my taxes.It’s a hard habit for me to break if I happen to hit an uncomfortable or slower spot in a novel.

When I hear the book, I am stuck taking in every word. The excellent part of this is that I don’t push forward as much and actually get more out of many of the books I listen to on tape. I wrote recently about The Book Thief with it’s poetic descriptions of the sky and a muddy kids’ soccer games. I felt more like I lived those experiences than I might if I flew through the pages with my eyes to find out what would happen next as fast as possible.

I also adore some of the actors’ voices because of what they bring to a text. Jim Dale is one of my all time favorite readers. I will never forget listening to my first Harry Potter book on the way home from church one day with my dad. We liked it so much we sat in the car to hear it. After that we brought it inside to set up in the living room and listen some more.

The Help was read by three talented actors with southern accents I would never be able to do justice to in my head if I read the book on my own. I can create accents in my mind’s ear for a time but, as I get absorbed in the plot, my thoughts slip back into Pacific Northwest suburban English. Jim Dale also helped me with his English accents — I especially loved his Hagrid and McGonagall.

I didn’t at first like this book on tape thing. It still bothers me that I can’t see the words on the page. I’m currently listening to Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, and I’ve been bugged by the last name of the painter that the main character Georges is named after. Georges keeps talking about how it sounds like Sir Ott when his parents pronounce it. Later another character uses a French pronunciation. All the while I’ve been thinking, “How is it spelled? How does that look on paper?” When I looked it up, I discovered that it’s Seurat.  And then I got a flash of ‘I’m an art dummy or I would already know this painter’ which wasn’t a good feeling and distracted me from the reading even if it happens to be the truth.

I also don’t like that I can’t easily go back to see what I missed or have forgotten. If I hit a tough spot in traffic or my toddler points out a train, I sometimes miss things and don’t want to fiddle with the audio to pick it back up.

And sometimes I get so eager to finish the book that the end of my car trip is a great inconvenience. I remember once driving out to Alder Lake and back for the extra 2 hours of listening time which wasn’t all that good for my gas bill. Lately, I’ve taken to checking out the printed book and the CD from the library so that I don’t have this problem. I can read the book when I get home.

As I think about it, I suppose I really have my dad to thank for getting me started on audio books. He drove miles for his work, all across Washington and Oregon and never was much of a visual reader. It was such a pleasure to hear stories with him or to talk about the books we’d both heard. I’m grateful to Dad for the in the car experiences I get to have even now that he’s gone.

Maybe my sister’s experience with her son will get him listening to his own books on tape in the future. Maybe, if nothing else, so he can go back and listen to the scenes his mother fast forwarded in Snow Falling on Cedars.

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2 thoughts on “Reading with My Ears

  1. I have found that I do the same thing with movies: I gloss out the parts I don’t want to remember, so when I would later watch a movie with my younger kids I was startled that “that” scene or verbiage was even contained in the movie. I found I had much more “sensitive ears” when I was playing parent. We now listen to books on tape every trip from Utah to Washington.

    • Karrie Zylstra

      I imagine that trip gives you lots of time to listen to books, Stuart! And it certainly is interesting how our memory is affected by what we want to remember. I’ve noticed in motivational work for my students that we often just don’t see the stuff that bores or upsets us even the first time we come across it.

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