In Praise of the Spoken Word

Saturday, July 19, 2008
I have several articles of clothing and other paraphernalia that read, "So Many Books, So Little Time." I actually like, for me, the dual nature of the message. Not only are there so many books to read, there are also so many to write.

Many authors believe that their work is more effective when read aloud. Certainly most children's books are designed in exactly this fashion. When reading a story, our minds add our own dramatic pauses, place emphasis on specific words and phrases, and attempt to capture the accent and tone behind the dialog. What our minds do to the words might not at all resemble what the author intended, as the mind can be a slippery and stubborn thing, determined to have its own way. This is, in no way, necessarily the fault of the writer (although it can be).

Like many denizens of Silicon Valley, CA, I have a fairly long, mind-numbing, knuckle-clenching commute. Most of the time is spent in so-called rush hour, doing the opposite of just that. Although music is always welcome, I've come to accept the vice of audiobooks—oral readings of books and stories. Some are dramatic, full-cast presentations of the work; most are not. Some of read by the author; most are not.

It's always interesting and enlightening to hear a story read by it's author. The author, having originally written the words, knows exactly where he intended the reader to take note of a phrase, pause for breath, or take a moment for introspection. Nearly all of the authors I've heard perform their own work do it very, very well: Harlan Ellison, Peter S. Beagle, and Spider Robinson come immediately to mind. (The last was a complete surprise to me. I've never had the pleasure of seeing Spider in person, so was surprised to discover that he had read "Stardance" himself. I never would have imagined that he had that voice.) For some authors, the effect is much less effective. As much as I enjoyed reading Neuromancer (during a cross-country trip to Toronto), William Gibson's oral presentation of his own work is, to put it kindly, more than mildly distracting.

Like many readers, there are probably as many books that I would like to return to as there are new ones that I would like to read. I've found that audiobooks during my commute is a very pleasant solution. Not only does it serve to pass the time and allow me to re-visit those books, but it also gives me the opportunity to hear someone else's interpretation of the words and characters. In a way, it also returns to the oral storytelling traditions of the past. There is something comforting and yet also evocative to have a work read aloud to you.

I know of many authors who claim that one of the ways in which they "test" a work in progress is to read it aloud to understand how it "sounds". Reading it aloud provides a clear indication of the rhythm and flow of the words that cannot always be determined by reading it silently to oneself. (I often compose scenes during short walks by working it out aloud. It's a fun exercise and people look at you only slightly more askance than they do someone talking on a cell phone.)

I sometimes wonder if the incidents of road rage might diminish if more people listened to literature (of any kind) in their vehicles rather than the inflammatory rhetoric of certain pundits and talk-shows hosts. Just an unspoken thought . . .
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