The new oral tradition

Nowadays when people ask if I’ve read a book and I start to answer yes, I have to stop and think. Did I actually read the book? Or did I only hear the author discuss the book on a podcast? This confusion wouldn’t happen if the book were a work of fiction, but I’m mainly drawn to non-fiction and in that realm I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, I seem to absorb the gist of non-fiction books so well from listening to their authors that I sometimes feel as if I’ve read them. Second, I find that when I do read these books I am sometimes disappointed to find that the writing doesn’t compel me in the same way that the speaking did.

I almost hate to mention this effect, because book publishing is a tough business already and doesn’t need more grief. Nor would I want authors to fear audio exposure. But the effect is real, at least for me, and I wonder why. Here are two theories:

1. The rebirth of the oral tradition

Before there was print, we mainly experienced writing as authors’ voices. Print expanded the reach of their words but not of their voices. During the 20th century, electronic media expanded the reach of some authors’ voices — but only those few who appeared in mainstream media. In the 21st century, though, podcasting has democratized interviews with — and lectures by — authors. Now, for almost any book, you can find one or more podcasts in which the author discusses the work. We have far greater access to the voices of the authors we read and, through their voices, to their personalities. The voices and personalities can be more compelling than the writing.

2. The process of iterative refinement

When you read a book, you access the author’s brain at the moment when the book was just finished. When you listen to an author discuss a book, though, you access his or her brain after it has reflected on the book and processed the world’s reaction to it. That later brain knows more about the themes of the book, and can articulate them better.

Spoken-word audio occupies a small niche within the ecosystem of downloadable audio, so maybe few are noticing this effect. That’s probably a good thing. I like accessing authors’ brains through their voices in addition to — but sometimes as a substitute for — their written words. That kind of substitution, if more widely practiced, would be disruptive.

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7 thoughts on “The new oral tradition

  1. Consider the audio book read by the author (or others). Would be interesting to bundle some of the podcasts and other audio with it.

  2. But Jon,

    the perennial problem is how to search through all that talk audio – so one can be as rapid to have it at hand as is text. As far as I know that’s not sorted yet.

  3. This is thoughtful and, for me, particularly timely. My design career “got serious” when I went to graduate school in 2001. My thesis project was quite ethnographic and involved interviewing designers, curators, and museum directors in Finland about Finnish design. The audio recordings I made were only meant to be for reference, but I ended up liking them so much that I incorporated them into the project web site.

    Eight years later I wrote my first book, and now have considered podcasting. I like how you have tied writing and speaking together — I think I’m more likely to commit to the podcasting now. And thus I will circle back to where I began: audio.

  4. Jon,

    This brings to mind some literary theory from college (that admittedly doesn’t come up too often in my software life) — the argument about whether discussions, further writings, historical context, etc., become essential to reading the original text over time or whether the text itself can only be interpreted in its original form. Derrida and Foucault and deconstruction. To me, it’s obvious that all the contextual factors play a role. Just think of a 2nd printing that incorporates improvements, new introductions, or even reader feedback gathered over the Web!


  5. Love the point about oral traditions; some authors really get their “story” across more effectively when we get to see/hear them tell it.

    Re: Your second point, about the author refining the story, I think, too, when they prepare an oral presentation, they hone in on their message. So many books go on an on, long after you get “the point”. In fiction, it’s not only about the story, it’s about how it’s told. In non-fiction, I tend to want to learn something, in which case I want it presented clearly and concisely.

    Now if only you can get me to learn how to access all this stuff! :^)

  6. Interesting.

    Here’s some speculations on how the nature of interviews might have something to do with it, by placing tangible pressure on the author to give a maximally intelligible and streamlined version of their message.

    There’s their directness. The author isn’t just writing down their argument, they’re trying to convey it then and there to a person, a person who will respond to what the author is saying. This adds pressure to make what they’re saying immediately intelligible.

    And the author must have to think on your feet a bit more, to try and explain it (or so I imagine). I find that having to do this makes me rationalize my argument, which seems to help you get at its essence.

    And I suspect there’s a story-telling element in there, too… interviews seem to lead to a story-telling mode, where the author explains how they got onto the problem or whatever their book describes… and I think that this fits in with our natural ability to absorb stories.

  7. Well, I have to first admit my bias for podcasts and audiobooks, because I review audiobooks and ebooks. Podcasts are very much a part of the audiobook world.

    I look at podcasts and audiobooks as a performance, almost as a translation. We grow up listening to stories aloud, and then that gets lost when we read independently. Podcasts are a nice reach back into communal reading as well as a part of the oral tradition, which is a bonus beyond the printed word.

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