Putting aside (although hardly forgetting) concerns with truly universal access to audiobooks for this post, let’s consider how listening can build engaged literacy. As the Walrus article ALA made sure to circulate broadly last week argues, literacy is as much endangered by lack of interest on the parts of those with the skills as other human epochs have experienced its fragility through lack of the skills themselves.
True literacy, when it comes to experiencing the world- and empathy-expanding powers of lengthy, carefully crafted narratives (that is, books) requires the reader to maintain connection with what the author has to say and how the author says it to a vanishing point between the book and its reader. Having the skills to decode letters, words, phrases, and passages is akin to amassing the bricks, mortar, glass, and roof shingles needed to build a house: unless you can stick with the efforts to reconstruct this pile of ingredients by following the author-supplied blueprint, you’re left with a lot full of debris or a haphazard stack that offers no fit dwelling place. On the other hand, once you’ve followed the blueprint, you then have a staging point (a house) from which you can go forth with the experience of building and dwelling in it.
We live in a contemporary milieu of sound bites and headlines, captions, and a passing array of disconnected perspectives and ideas. Audiobook listening, by contrast, provides the opportunity to rediscover a sustained experience with listening long enough and with sufficient engagement to rediscover the enriching capacity of fully developed stories and accounts. This is as valuable a rediscovery for capable speed-readers as it is for those who find visual reading laborious. The pacing is set in shared human (social) time so that every turn of phrase and every subtle word choice made by the author receive their due. Sustained audiobook listening reinforces the author’s intentions and turns the listening reader away from placing herself first and foremost in the reading experience. (Yes, digital playback comes with options to speed up, as well as slow down, the audiobook; if you find yourself doing the former, maybe you really just don’t have time for anyone’s voice but your own, while the latter can serve as an occasional support when the language being heard—whether because it is not the listener’s native one or delves into formulae he needs to work through in analog.) Sustained listening rebuilds the reader’s capacity to fall into the book instead of keeping it—figuratively as well as physically—at arm’s length.
Sustained listening builds our capacity to do just that, to actually listen instead of impatiently moving on to our own desire for self-expression. It takes us out of our self-centered approach of “allowing” others a brief turn at saying what we haven’t thought or felt ourselves before quickly turning the conversation back to our place in the spotlight. The purpose of reading is to get beyond what we each can create with no voice but our own, whether applied to accessing technical directions or romance novels. When we lose interest in others voices, we become less than when we value wisdom beyond what we can develop in isolation. Taking the time to to hear the author through moves us to a point outside our interior monolog. Rebuilding literacy’s promise of human engagement, over isolation, is as close as your audiobook collection.