It’s no secret that I love and make use of audio books. As someone who cannot do voices, who can’t read ahead silently while speaking the words that came before, and who simply doesn’t – I know, it’s bad – sit and read aloud for more than 30 minutes at a stretch, audio books have been a life saver.
Yes, there’s something homey and cozy about the whole family sitting together while mom or dad reads a story. And my husband does do family read alouds. But there’s also something great about listening together to a story while we eat – it cuts down on table shenanigans, for one. We can have quiet time that’s actually quiet for the napping baby and for me, while some children are listening to a story while playing legos or drawing.
The difference between a book read aloud by me and a book read aloud by the author or a professional reader is the difference between a small school Shakespeare play and a Royal Shakespeare Company rendition. The first might sometimes be decent, and it’s good for those doing it, but the second is not only more entertaining, it actually helps you understand the play and the language better.
Now, I can handle non-fiction reading. It’s a totally different creature than a story. A story has much more nuance, has different patterns and rhythms, has characters with their own voices. Non-fiction is usually consistent in its style and rhythm, but fiction moves and changes.
Novels with dialects make this the most stark. I could stumble through dialog, sounding it out and being confused myself about what the person is saying. Or we could turn on an audio book where, when we hear it pronounced as the author was hearing it in his own head when he wrote it, not only the meaning, but also the subtleties and inferences come out as well.
Audio books are translations
Experiencing a story is about more than understanding the words.
The words are there to move you in certain ways, and it is simply much more likely to happen if those words are read the way the author was thinking them when he wrote them.
Reading is actually an act of interpretation. A reader is translating printed shapes into audible sounds. Some are better translators than others.
Clearly, Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Lewis, all sound better read with a British accent. What doesn’t?
But sometimes it’s about more than sounding better. Sometimes it really is about understanding.
For example, my family listened to The Tale of Despereaux on a car trip one time. We all loved it. The narrator has a wry undertone and read both slowly and seriously and yet tongue-in-cheek. I recommended it to a friend, who read the book herself. She came back and commented that the book was rather dark, but I had thought it was funny. She listened to the audio next and realized she had picked up on the serious tale tone but not the tongue-in-cheek dry humor. I have not read this book in particular, but I know I have done the same thing with books myself. I think all my first (possibly second) readings of Jane Austen did not pick up on any irony. But the narrator of the audio book gives not a straight reading of a text, but also an interpretation – conveying sarcasm, irony, dry wit in a tone that we might otherwise miss even reading the text to ourselves.
Another example of audiobooks providing an interpretation is Winnie the Pooh. I grew up watching the tv show, but Milne was not a family read aloud. I picked it up to read it aloud when my oldest was two or three. I opened the book for the first time in my life, thinking that I could pick it up and read it aloud just like any other picture book. I read words, and I didn’t see how they worked together. It took careful reading and thought to figure out what was going on, and unless I knew what was going on, I couldn’t read it aloud coherently at all.
So I bought the audio books by Peter Dennis. On the back, Christopher Robin Milne himself said that if you want to experience the stories the way he did, then this set is the one to buy. I was amazed when we listened to them for the first time, because the tone and the style conveyed so much that I had missed. I understood.
And now Winnie the Pooh is a family favorite and we have quote upon quote that we use within our family culture.
Audio books are educative
A side benefit I was not expecting from audio books is how they are helping my own children read aloud with style. Because they listen to numerous audio books, read by different people, they have different styles and voices and sounds in their own heads to draw from when they are reading aloud (not wanting to pass along my own ineptitude at reading aloud a story, I make sure everyone gets practice reading aloud). I love hearing my sons practicing different voices and accents for characters in a picture books. Sometimes those in themselves are connections being formed: “Oh, he’s using a Piglet-like voice for that character, I can see that connection.”