Written versus spoken books

I had a chat the other day with a colleague about audio books. It turns out we’re both longtime listeners to books on tape, and now books on CD. I got started years ago when my job required a longish commute, and I tired of listening to music. The selection of available audio books was much less than for books in print (that’s improved now, but it’s still more limited), and I took up a “take what you can find” attitude to my listening selections.

Since then, the supply of available audio books has improved a great deal, and my approach to what to listen to while driving around has changed (and improved!) a lot. I was surprised when my friend volunteered that the books he listens to are quite different that those he reads.I’m the same way: I’ve listened to many books that I would never have found the time to sit down and read today.

I find that my Audio-only books come in three flavors: higher quality literature than I usually find the time for, non-fiction books that look interesting but I would never finish, and popular fiction that I’d never read. In the first category, there are some truly fine titles like Moby Dick, The Illiad, and The Divine ComedyThe Divine Comedy. In the second category are quite a mix, from the hilarious (and gruesome) Stiff by Mary Roach (she is one dangerous woman!), to Mark Kurlansky’s inspirational Nonviolence. I’ve also listened to courses from the Teaching Company and others that would difficult to stomach in a classroom.

As long as your lips don’t move, reading is by definition and anti-social activity. Listening to a book would seem to offer more opportunity for social interaction, but in my experience that rarely works.

So, even though both printed and audio books are solo activities, in my limited sample space, they seem to appeal to distinctly different taste for a given individual. I’ve puzzled over it a bit, and can’t quite put my finger on as to why this is the case. I love audio books, but they’re a quite different experience than the printed page. Happy listening!

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