November 8, 2015

Can you read with your ears?
If someone asks me if I've read The Great Gatsby or Frankenstein, what do I tell them? One the one hand I've never seen the words written by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mary Shelley, on the other hand I'm closely acquainted with the characters and plot, the themes and narrative style, even the authors' syntax and word choice, just as if I've read these novels. So maybe I have. You see, I've listen to them in audiobook format. My instinct is to tell someone that they were read to me, not by mebut I need to stop making that distinction. I need to admit that I can read with my ears.

This is more than a question of whether or not the blind can read, although that question helps illuminate the problem. Surely we can read through touch as long as we can read braille, so why can't we read with our ears? This is also more than a semantic question regarding the meaning of the verb "to read." The bigger question here is why we give priority to visual learning over auditory learning. If in answer to the question, "Have you read..." I answer, "I listened to it" it implies that my reception of the work was of less value than someone who looked at every word. But hearing is a perfectly legitimate way of taking in information; in fact, for some people it's more natural. For some, listening to an audiobook will result in higher comprehension and retention then looking at a printed book.

But there's more than the practical argument for audiobooks, I also have history behind me. Writing was born from oral tradition. Wouldn't it be ridiculous to disallow or diminish the value of a form of reading that recalls that tradition? At one time stories, news, and philosophy were only told and heard. Even with the advent of writing many texts were written by dictation. So who was the author of Aristotle's Metaphysics, the Gospel of John, or Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae? Scholars believe that all of these texts are transcripts of the authors' voices. It's conceivable that they never saw some of the words they wrote, never traced a single word with pen and ink, and yet they are the authors. John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost but he wrote it nonethelesshe wrote it through dictation, shouldn't I be able to read it through recitation? It seems like a natural corollary.

So yes, I've read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I've read it so closely that I can recite lines. Ordinarily I wouldn't qualify that statement because I no longer see any significant different between visual and auditory reading but just this once I'll admit that I read it with my ears.