Detail map of Stanford, California, United States,Brooklyn, New York, United States

A: Stanford, California, United States, B: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Growth of Audiobooks Suggests that People are Exploring Different Ways of Reading


On February 22, 2014 The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Stanford anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann entitled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling which suggested that the popularity of this form of reading is growing along with digital books. People are exploring different ways of reading. From it I quote:

"The sale of audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2012, total industry sales in the book business fell just under 1 percent over all, but those of downloadable audiobooks rose by more than 20 percent. That year, 13,255 titles came out as audiobooks, compared with 4,602 in 2009. Publishers seem to be paying more attention to their production. When Simon and Schuster published Colm Toibin’s “Testament of Mary” last autumn, the narrator was Meryl Streep.

"We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud. Listening to a written text harkens back to childhood, when we couldn’t read it ourselves, or a time when our parents left off reading the chapter out loud in the middle, a nudge that we’d use our school-taught skills to finish it off by ourselves.

"The great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure thought we treated writing as more important than speaking because writing is visual. Speech is ephemeral — you hear a word, and then it is gone. The word written down remains, and so we attach more significance to it. Saussure wrote that when we imagined text as more important than speech, it was as if we thought we would learn more about someone from his photograph than from his face.

"But so it is. The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech. When only a small priestly elite could read, books were sacred mysteries. When more people could read, literacy became a means to move forward in the world. These days, the ability to read is a prerequisite for full participation in the social order.

"But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung. We think that the Homeric singers of those tales mastered the prodigious mnemonic task presented by those thousands upon thousands of lines of text through an intricate combination of common phrases — rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea — and nested plots that could be expanded or shortened as the occasion demanded.

"Even after narratives were written down, they were more often heard than read. The Roman elites could read, but gatherings at which people recited their poetry were common. And before the modern era, when printing made books widely available and literacy became widespread, reading was an oral act. People read aloud not only to others but also to themselves, and books, as the historian William Graham puts it in 'Beyond the Written Word,' were meant for the ears as much, or more so, than for the eyes.

"In the early 17th century the Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci captured the orality of writing in this letter to a Peking publisher: 'The whole point of writing something down is that your voice will then carry for thousands of miles, whereas in direct conversation it fades at a hundred paces.' Mr. Graham writes that in Europe, silent private reading became widespread only in the second half of the 19th century."

This last assertion that "silent private reading became widespread only in the second half of the 19th century," did not strike me as correct, so I made a note to myself to verify or deny the assertion, someday. My sense was that silent reading was the method of choice since the Renaissance, but, I suppose, if we take into account the limited overall literacy during that time, and the dramatic growth of literacy that occurred in the second half of the 19th century, then Mr. Graham's assertion regarding "widespread" silent reading could be relatively correct. 

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