Light, Sound, and the Speed of the Mind

Reading philosophy, including its essential byway of political theory, requires a kind of patience that demands readers monitor their own capacity as much as the author’s path making. As an undergraduate, I learned that some philosophical texts were best consumed if I read them aloud, a discovery that certainly helped me in graduate school while horrifying some of my fellow students there.

Across most of adulthood, however, my reading of both classical and contemporary philosophy texts has been silently tracked with my eyes. Of course, the going is more slow than when my eyes track murder mysteries in print or even works about biology, behavioral psychology, or history. A rubric of good journalism is its transparency so reading the news happens, for me, at something akin to the speed of light.

However, recent audiobook publishing of mid- and late-twentieth century Western philosophy texts has given me the opportunity to discover—and this time with expert narrators in the driver’s seat—that ears, rather than eyes, are the preferred conduit for taking in sentences in which a variety of dependent clauses, and their order, require careful tracking. Discovering the variety of interpretative performance styles audiobook narrators are bringing to philosophical texts has also led to an eye-opening time. Some present the text in almost casual tones, pacing the reading as though they were chatting with the audience, or performing a literary novel in which word choice and phrasing counts but the emotional inflections do as well. Others assume a kind of lecture pacing, with halts as though they themselves are considering the passage just presented, or rushing ahead when the text doesn’t seem to serve a purpose other than as a bridge to their own next a-ha moment.

One very recent listen brought a variety of insights about differences in eye-reading and ear-reading, however. Hannah Arendt’s 1963 On Revolution is narrated by the Audio Publishers Association’s 2017 Best Female Narrator, Tavia Gilbert, whose voice work can be heard in a variety of genres from science fiction to thriller to romance, and audiobooks for very young listeners, reads this one at a speed that frightened me for all of the first two minutes—and then I realized that she had accurately tapped Arendt’s own speed of thought rather than her speaking pace (which, in her native German, can be heard here). Famous for her long sentences (which her friend author Mary McCarthy would prune ahead of final editing), Arendt required them in order to crystalize the prism of any one of her speculations, assertions, or analyses. And Gilbert, for her part, re-animates that speedy thought process by delivering aloud sentences that might take the eye-reader two or three goes to absorb.

This new spate of audiobook publishing is most welcome, as long as it hews to the high standard of interpreting the author’s expressive pace. Gilbert has set the mark.