Should people who read books look down on people who listen to audiobooks? Many do: "I like to read my books," they say. And the writers can be snobby about it too, like Frank McCourt, who says listening is better than nothing. But he's also snobby about the actors who record audiobooks -- they do "this phony breathing." You should read his books, he's saying, and if you can't do that, you should listen to him reading his books to you.
Well, maybe that's how writers are: Come listen to me, in my world, and see everything as I see it.
Though I don't like the book-reader's flat-out snobbery, some of the preference for reading books over listening to them is justified. If you're reading a book you're probably only reading. You're making a total experience out of the book, and your brain is more deeply engaged, generating mental pictures.
But this is not always so. Some people read a book as a way to fall asleep. They can see sleep coming on as the words blur. The toilet is a favorite place for reading. And then there are the few people -- myself included -- who will read while walking. We're being careless and looking ridiculous at the same time -- especially ridiculous if you need reading glasses.
Book-listeners can try to act superior or at least equal, I note, by emphasizing that they walk while reading. Just call those book-readers "sedentary." Couch potatoes! Why doesn't sitting around with a book come in for the same insults aimed at TV-watching? And don't tell me it's the quality. People listen to a lot of trashy books. And I might be watching "Nights of Cabiria" on my TV.
It's just a different experiece to hear someone intone the words than to look at the words. You gain something by hearing another person's inflections but you lose the ability to search for your own interpretations. A lot depends on the book. Some books yield more meaning when read by a good reader. Humor comes through really well on the audio mental channel. Other books are incomprehensible on audio. You need to control the speed and be free to think about things as you go along.
Back in the day when you had to rent a big set of cassette tapes to hear an unabridged book, I rented "Mrs. Dalloway" for a long car trip only to find that I simply couldn't understand it on tape. I kept going back and starting over, but I never could begin to grasp it. And some wonderful old English actress was doing the reading. I kept feeling as though I could see her there with the book and feeling that I wanted to grab it out of her hands. Let me see that. Even with the financial incentive of having paid too much to rent the tapes, I never got past the first five minutes. I constantly found myself thinking about something and missing the next line. It was an exasperating experience of continually losing my place.
So read books or listen to books or watch TV or listen to music or walk around in silence or have a conversation with some real live people. Whatever you want. All have potential to be sublime or worthless or somewhere in between.