Let all things be done unto edifying. –1 Corinthians 14:26, KJV
Each medium shapes the content it conveys. Or, more memorably, if overstated, “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). How, then, do paper books differ from and audio books? One can read a book G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. The same content can be heard on an audio book, such as through Audible.com. However, the medium matters for understanding.
The book is in one place at one time. It is a token of a type. My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is one of many individual books, all of which bear the same content and title. It is not wafting in “the cloud” and cannot be downloaded to a portable device. It is portable, though; but the larger it is, the less portable it becomes. Try putting my book, Christian Apologetics (752 pages) into your suitcase. You won’t have room for much else. However, the tome can be used as a doorstop, for weight training, and for self-defense.
Books age. The pages yellow, tear, and fall out. Books can be annotated. Their pages accommodate and welcome your comments, cross references, highlights, underlining, and coffee spills. Books may be autographed by their authors. As such, books can be markers of memories. When I was a freshman in college, I wrote marginalia in my copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the middle of the night after awakening from a strange dream. Next to a passage on the despair that resists God, I wrote, “This is happening to me tonight.” You see, the book was reading me. The Holy Spirit of truth was illuminating the words and apply them to the depths of my soul.
The copy of Pascal’s Pensées that I used for my doctoral dissertation was worn beyond what its spine could endure. Pages tumbled out and had to be stuffed back in, often not in the right place. It did not age well. But I could not dispose of the book. A student offered to give the book a new spine. A spiral binding (a kind of exoskeleton) now secures the pages for posterity and my further research.
Books can be objects of anger. In a fit of rage, you can throw a book across the room, as I have done—even in the classroom. (I have never thrown a book atanyone.) One projectile of shame has been Blue Like Jazz, which holds the record for most public abuse. Another is No Argument for God. I have left this practice behind, but there are surviving witnesses to my excitations. You can throw audio recorders, Kindle readers, and laptops across rooms, too. Of course, doing that is a tad more expensive.
Books are placed somewhere, since they are discreet objects in the external world. They are part of a physical environment and contribute to an ambiance. They also have a distinctive smell, which is immediately obvious when you enter a used book store (or my basement). Whether they are out of order or in order, they enter the visual, tactile, and olfactory senses. My dog, Sunny, sometimes rests his head on a pile of my books in my study. If he wants to be with me, he often has no choice.
Audio books are not books, but recordings of books. They were first recorded on vinyl records, then on cassettes, CDs, and now mostly on line. I have a magnificent set of speeches by Winston Churchill, which were recorded on several records, dating back many decades. This sounds better: Amazon also houses some of his speeches in the cloud. The Bible was recorded on vinyl to give the visually-impaired audio access to Holy Writ. It was later put on cassette, CD, and was later streamed on the Internet. I spent countless hours listening to Alexander Scourby (1913-1985) read the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. “Scourby has the greatest voice ever recorded,” said The Chicago Tribune. While listening in my car about twenty years ago, I heard his reading of Jesus’ fiery condemnation of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, taken from Matthew 23. It gave me chills because Scourby captured Jesus’ disgust with pompously false religion so tellingly. His incomparable recitations are still available.
Literary critic, Sven Birkerts critiqued the audio book twenty years ago in The Guttenberg Elegies, finding the very nature of the medium problematic. When he wrote, audio books were limited to cassettes, which are bulkier and less easily listened to than audio books on line. But his comments are still apt; so, I will reflect on them.
Listening is different from reading, even if the intellectual content is identical. When you read, you may supply a voice to the text, especially if you have heard the author speak. I find this true when I read anything by Os Guinness, whose speaking and writing are distinctive, profound, and well-entrenched in my consciousness. But if you are reading Plato, there is no determinative voice to hear in the written words, although you could supply one—perhaps Charlton Heston. Or, y0u may simply read along with no voice in mind.
However, when listening to an audio book, a voice—the professional reader, or in some cases the author—is assigned. You have no choice in who reads it to you, but you may avoid certain audio book readers and be inclined toward others. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesusis read by the author, the late Nabeel Qureshi. This is fitting since he had a pleasant voice and because the book is the story of his own conversion. Things may get confusing, though, if a female reads a book by a male author or vice versa. For example, Kate Redding reads Francis Schaeffer’s book, He is There and He is not Silent. But, perhaps, this should make no difference. Schaeffer’s own voice was a bit high-pitched and raspy, but always insistent. Redding’s voice is sure and authoritative. It seems to work.
As we try to comprehend ideas, we must often retrace our steps. In conversation, we may say, “Can you say that again?” or “Do you mean so and so?” A printed book (or a Kindle book) allows us to read at our own pace, to stop and ponder, and to go back and reread sections of the book. The book itself has no pace, no speed of exposition. The reader supplies that. The audio book sets its own pace, although it now gives us the option of speeding up or slowing down the rate of reading. At the extremes, the voice no longer seems human at all. Words are recited at speeds and with tones unknown to normal speakers. I occasionally speed up the speech because I want to get more information more quickly. But at what cost is this to understanding the content or to an aesthetic appreciation of the voice?
Audio books allow you to backtrack, but it is unwieldy in relation to what the paper book allows (and encourages). Of course, we often listen to audio books in settings—as while driving, eating, or exercising—in which our hands are not free to handle a paper book.