Ways of Reading

pile of discarded books

I wonder whether the physical act of reading is essential to the character of the information or ideas that are read. How is reading about a car accident different from seeing it or hearing about it? When we listen to a lecture or a poem, is the content affected by the way in which it is delivered to our brains? What is gained or lost, if anything?

I have always loved reading. I love the stories that I’ve read, the physical books themselves, the activity of getting lost in a great novel and even the act of sharing books with others. But now the choice of how to read has become more complicated. In addition to reading actual books, we can read e-books on a plain black and white backlit screens. The books themselves exist only in a “cloud”. Amazing. Books that became a popular medium due to the invention of the printing press have completely done away with ink and paper. Does this change the nature of reading?

We can also use various electronic devices to listen to books. These are read by people who are chosen for their ability to bring words to life. Unlike movies that are based on books, these audiobooks are not a retelling of a story with a screenwriter’s or director’s choices on what to include or exclude, these are the actual words written by the original author. How does this change the experience of the book? Does it enhance, detract or is it a new experience altogether?

As the variety of media increases, more people are asking these questions. What’s interesting though, is the range of responses. Some strongly reject the idea of reading literature in any other format than an actual book. Often these objections suggest that the non-paper methods lessen the experience. I’ve recently seen a survey of authors who generally agreed they prefer people to read their books rather than listen to them (although they prefer any method over none at all). But why? Is reading more worthy than listening? Is something lost if the story comes though the ears rather than the eyes? Is print and paper an essential part of the complete experience?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that there are some books I could never crack that I have listened to with great pleasure (think Middlemarch). There are others that I don’t want to truly own and which get popped onto the iPad for a satisfying but short-term relationship. And there are those that I want to cuddle up with and return to often that are the books themselves. What I do know is that whichever medium I choose I will continue to savour the good story. Because for me that is ultimately what reading is all about.

– Minda Sherman