Saturday, May 25, 2013

Please don't read to me

It’s probably just me, but I don’t like hearing someone reading aloud from a book, whether it is their own or someone else’s. Part of this is because people often do not read aloud very well, even when it is their own work. Being a good writer does not necessarily make you a good public speaker. For many years I have been a fan of T. S. Eliot, but I remember one day borrowing a tape (those long thin cellulose strips, wrapped around spools, inside a plastic casing) from the local library of Eliot reading some of his own poetry. Listening to him drone on in his flat, monotone voice almost destroyed poetry for me. Listening to someone read can simply be boring.

Another thing that I don’t like about it has something to do with the basic cognitive differences between listening to something and reading it. One of my characters (in a book yet to be published) has this to say:

Diane found the words on a page much easier to comprehend than the words vibrating through the air around her. On the page the relationships between words were clear and fixed. Words in the air followed each other sequentially, and if you missed one it was gone forever, and its successor would shrivel and die like a pruned branch. For this reason she found that attending to a conversation required much more effort than reading a book.

I hadn’t realised until I started writing this how much I agreed with her. It applies to reading aloud as much as it does to a conversation. When I read a book I can see the whole sentence; I can see how the words within it relate to each other. I can see how that sentence relates to the others around it. A sentence can sometimes be quite complex, and when read out it can be difficult to keep track of the clauses and subclauses. It is much easier when it is on the page in front of me. I am also certain that there are differences in the cognitive processes that occur when hearing words compared to seeing them. I am sure that they involve different parts of the brain. They also, I would suggest, enter the memory via different pathways. I am willing to bet there is a much higher probability that I will have forgotten something read to me ten minutes ago than something I read myself ten minutes ago. For this reason it is also much easier to lose the thread of something that is read to me than something I am reading.

If I do miss something when a passage from a book is read to me, what follows, as my character Diane points out, withers and dies. Once the track is lost, there is little chance of getting it back. This is not true of the words written on the page.

Finally, when I read for myself I can do so at my own pace. I can take a moment to pause and reflect. If I don’t quite understand something I can take the time to wrestle with it. None of this is possible when a piece is read to me. I am at the mercy of the reader's pace.

For these reasons, I am always reluctant to comment on someone’s writing when it is read to me. I prefer to read it for myself. For the same reasons, I am reluctant to read from my own work and have others comment on it. Although it is often done at writers’ festivals, reading groups and writing groups, I do not believe that books are primarily meant to be listened to. They are meant to be read. I also do not believe that it is particularly helpful (or even really possible) to judge, assess or evaluate someone’s writing on the basis of a verbal recitation. 

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