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.