Reading by ear allows for a variety of other activities likely to require sight—running, driving, frosting birthday cakes—or no physical access to sight at all—after all, American audiobook publishing was born of the needs of blind readers. However, as with most things in life, there is a middle way: the opportunity for the sighted, or those with memory of the capacity to engage the world with their eyes, to use no organ other than ears and imagination to conjure the visual elements of what is being read. Eyes can be closed so that even the more or less automatic use of physical vision to track print across a page or screen comes out of play.
To read with the ears in this state of unaccompanied eye input is to give an open field to the images and colors the words and phrasings themselves evoke in the mind. This allows the full measure of works rich in such visual recreations to take center stage within, an experience that can be, in seriousness as well as punnery, heady and exhilarating.
A fine example of this involves an anthology of short stories commissioned to celebrate individual paintings by Edward Hopper. In Sunlight or In Shadow (print Pegasus Books, 2016) was a project of author and demonstrably gifted anthology editor Lawrence Block and comprises 17 short stories by the likes of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Levin, and other well known, critically acclaimed authors. Reading these tales of cravenness, fantastical mystery, and regret would be a rich experience in itself.
To hear this collection, and to do so without using the listener’s eyes elsewhere, to simply keep them closed, presents such fully formed and richly detailed sights within the mind’s eye that they become unforgettable. Dreamscape (2017) made use of a full cast to record the stories and each reader’s pacing is such that the imagistic constructions created by the authors receive every bit of light or shadow they warrant, every stroke of Hopper’s muted but frequently sunwashed paints. Hopper’s paintings, of course, are rich with narrative and narrative potential. Adding the layer of writers’ word frames and sculpting takes them to new and even more potent possibilities. Then, to come full circle and remove the reader’s own organ of vision to replace it with the tones of voice throws the listening reader onto a reserve of insight some individuals may find startling as well as intoxicating.
The voices are those of audiobook veterans and frequent award winners, including Hillary Huber, George Newbern, and Carrington MacDuffie. But as they read their allotted stories here, their voices appropriately fold behind the visions they create, with the authors’ words, of the painter’s images, just as Hopper’s brush strokes, while absolutely essential, give clear way to what they carry. Reading by ear takes on a power that can’t exist when one must keep the eyes on the marks that create written language.
The power of aural reading becomes visibly full, all within the mind’s eye. In so doing, the connection of hearing to literacy also becomes visible by example.