Listen very carefully

I’m a voracious reader. I devour books, racing through the pages as if it’s some sort of competition. I feed on the words, barely giving them chance to breathe before I shove them in my maw and swallow them whole to be digested at my leisure. But that’s not the only way to read.

I’m semi-envious of the gourmets, the ones who take their time, linger on every syllable and drink deep of their meaning. These people find every subtext and double-meaning and who really think of the story in the moment and let it draw them slower into the atmosphere, the world of the novel.

I’ve just finished an audiobook – an occasional pleasure that, for the past decade, has always been dependent on my local library’s stock. It struck me just how different an experience it had been from the way I normally read. When I have a book in my hand I occasionally skim through brief sections. I have a mortal fear of embarrassment and sometimes I rush through scenes of personal humiliation, or awkward dates and the like. Can’t do that with an audiobook. By listening to a recitation a reader loses their control on the material. You’re forced to listen to every single word.

More importantly, you’re made to experience the work at a more measured, slower pace than normal. And just by slowing things down you’re fundamentally changing your experience. The pregnant pauses you skipped, the descriptions that went past in a blur; here they’re all measured out, apportioned. You’re listening to someone else’s interpretation of the text and you’re being told details that you’d have missed, or only absorbed subconsciously, if it’d been you reading.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I’ve come across for authors is that they should read their own texts out loud as an extra test of the material. This tendency to skip words affects authors as much as readers; it’s quite amazing how much bad writing you miss when you’re editing. For some reason the brain just doesn’t see it. At some level you know you’ve written a scene or paragraph that doesn’t have real purpose but, because there’s nothing actually wrong with it you pass over. Again and again and again. The lazy part of the brain refuses to let you focus on the problem. Forcing yourself to read every single work out loud makes you face up to your errors.

But for me it’s just a pleasure. To allow words to roll over you, to experience the visceral thrill of the imagination in a way that seems to pass through your ears and enter the brain directly. Now the only words I miss occur when it’s time for a coffee, because I can bear to hit the pause button. I’d much prefer to lose a bit of meaning than to lose the atmosphere that these soft voices build in us.

Thanks to a birthday present from my significant other (or ‘wife’, depending) I now have a regular supply of audiobooks at my command. And I can’t wait to immerse myself in other worlds. It’s never easier to lose yourself in a story than when it’s being read to you, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re four or forty. We should never let ‘growing up’ take away the glory of the imagination.

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