Monday, August 01, 2011

Why read when you can listen?

There's an old quote, "Reading makes a full man". I'm not quite sure who said it but I know it's got to be at least a couple of years older than myself because I was introduced to the concept early on by my dad. Despite the early infusion of such words of wisdom, I really never turned out to be a good reader.

For one, I could never read on a moving platform for more than 60 seconds without feeling nauseous. Forget about reading in bed either, for more than 40 - 60 minutes (my record might be about 90 minutes) before the book starts slapping my face multiple times as I loop over the same paragraph of text over and over before giving up and falling asleep!

When I do get into the mood of reading, it still seems to take me much longer to finish a book when compared with, oh I don't know my sister! She's got a ton of books, almost all novels and I remember seeing her finish them fast.

So early on as a kid, I realized, my reading time was precious and best spent on things that I ought to really care about. Things that add real value as opposed to mere entertainment. As a result, I hardly read fiction or even science fiction for that matter but instead resolved to science fact books like astronomy, GW Basic programming and my favorite - books on magic. This was probably early signs of my geekiness.

Eventually I did get around to reading fiction (and sci-fi) in limited quantities and throughly enjoyed it. I got "what the fuss was about", but still felt it was a waster of effort which I could substitute with watching the movie.

Now don't get me wrong! I love books as much as the next guy. I have a shelf full of books and a few more overflowing around the house. The problem is, I have way too many books that I've started to read but never finished. Fortunately almost all of them are computer books. More recently though, I've had better success completely reading books thanks to the Kindle because I can carry it around.


And then I decided to try out audible. They had a couple of deals which they advertised often on Amazon (amazon owns it), but only made me consider after listening to a sample of a book I owned and loved.

My first audio book which I purchased and downloaded was "Contact" by Carl Sagan. It was one of the few sci-fi books I already owned and read only because I fell in love with the movie. It was also one of those rare stories in which I felt the movie was as good (if not better) as the book even though the two had a considerable difference to the story line. After hearing a sample narration of the audio version by Jodie Foster, I wanted to download it immediately. Contact was my catalyst (aka killer book) for getting on the audio book bandwagon.

Since then I've picked up several books, fiction and non-fiction. While I won't mention them here, I will mention one great book I just finished today listening to and which made me want to write this post. The audio book is none other than "The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy (HHGG)" by Douglas Adam and narrated by Stephan Fry. Unlike Contact, I had never read the book though I owned it and always meant to get to it. Having obsessively listening to it the past week, even falling asleep to it, I admit this was probably the best narration I have ever heard of anything so far, ever! (not that it's saying a lot given my geek background, but I do have good taste!)

Before I conclude this post which I didn't expect to be this long, I'd like to throw in this food for thought. Was my dad right about the "Reading makes a full man?" quote or is reading overrated? Should reading even be considered as an optimal means of consuming knowledge or gathering information? I mean think about it! We live in an age where information is available at the tip of Google but its mostly just text which needs to be read. The more you think about it, the more you realize that reading is the "last mile" bottleneck between information and your brain.

I am not saying reading and writing must die! I do feel reading fast (skimming) might be more efficient to discover the relevance of information than listening. Writing and reading what you've written might also be more useful for gathering thought. What I am debating is whether once the message has been devised (through iterative writing and reading), delivering that concise message need always be done via text to be read.

Why then are we still fixated on reading? Is reading a legacy practice that's been passed from generations and one that made perfect sense when it was the only viable means of recording information? If so, given today's rich multimedia options, why aren't we switching our primary medium?

The answer may well be the generation gap. Perhaps we will realize once the kids who are now growing up in a world of podcasts, youtube and interactive games decide what to do with it when they rule the world. What do you think? Should I stop writing and just stick to podcasting after all?

2 comments:

chanux said...

Oh come on Bud! Tell me about podcasting...


BTW, I don't think listening can really replace reading. Because things that are made to be listened does more for us than just text does. (Movies does way more than that.) Reading leaves more room for our imagination to work on. Listening takes away some of it. And watching and listening takes a LOT away from it. We lose some of the fun there right?

So for me audio books will never replace plain old books. Yes I agree we all don't really make time for reading in the age of the Internet. But, are audio books the solution? Perhaps I'm yet to find out.

Bud said...

@Chanux Listening to podcast is awesome.. doing a podcast is another story :) But we should.. we should

Listening can't always replace reading as neither can the vice-versa. As I said reading is quite helpful when writing (duuh!). Reading is also more efficient in studying something that has non english bits (symbols, equations, pictorial, source code).

But reading as a form of entertainment or gathering knowledge that you don't necessarily need to recall precisely (say during an exam) can be replaced with the more efficient listening medium without really loosing much.

Unlike watching a movie version of a book where the formats change drastically and the noise level high (thanks to the creative brain), the text to speech conversion is near lossless. Sure the sample rate is higher when listening and you might skip over a word here and there but as long as your interested there is less to loose. It doesn't take away from your imagination either.

But I agree not all audio books are audible. It really depends on the voice clarity of the reader and their ability to improvise. This is why TTS hasn't really taken off. We're still a few years away from having a Eddie like personality driven voice synthesis.

The question you need to honestly ask your self is, how many books have I been collecting to read some day when I get the time? How many of them would I have listened to on my commute or at night lying in bed if they were good audio books.