Close Listening

On the first day of the semester, I have my students play “Two Truths and a Lie” as a get-to-know-you/ice-breaker activity. Last semester, my three “facts” were that I was thirty years old, that I had a daughter, and that I didn’t read any books over the summer. Pretty much every student suspected that the third one was a lie. Sure I look young, but how could an ENGLISH teacher not read any books? Blasphemy!

All of the students that guessed the third one were, however, wrong. The correct lie was “I have a daughter” (but don’t tell my spoiled dog who thinks she’s human). Perhaps though my truth was a bit misleading. Yes, I didn’t read any books, but I didn’t listen to quite a few (the whole 5,000ish pages of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, actually).

I listened to all of these books on my iPhone, much in the way that Cathy Davidson describes Duke students circa 2003 listening to various lectures and recordings on their iPods. When describing the benefits of being able to listen to course material at their own leisure, Davidson explains how all classes “could be taped and listened to anywhere. [Students] didn’t have to go to the library or the language lab to study. [Students] could listen to assignments on the bus, at the gym, while out on a run—and everyone did” (66).

Here Davidson points to a very real benefit of being able to listen to course material on the go: the convenience. Not only do you not have to go to the library to study, you don’t have to sit down. As Davidson notes, you can go to the gym or commute, but you can also do a variety of other necessary tasks, such as grocery shopping or cleaning. Basically, you no longer have wasted time. You can make it so that you are always working.

While this is an important benefit of being able to listen to texts, it is, however, not the only benefit. Audiobooks have advantageous aspects, even if you listen to them curled up in an armchair with a cup of tea. For instance, I am a really slow reader. Like, painfully slow. But with audiobooks, my reading speed is predetermined (and much faster than it would be otherwise). My mind doesn’t wander the way that it does with traditional texts, partly because it’s like listening to someone tell you a story. I feel somewhat obligated to make sure that I’m paying close attention, lest I hurt the narrator’s feelings.

Additionally, audiobooks can add material to the text that cannot exist in a traditional print format. Watch this quick clip to see what I mean. For those of you unfamiliar with the story you just heard excerpted, it’s considered to be the first gothic novel. And even if you were unfamiliar with what that genre entails, you’d probably be able to venture a pretty good guess from that 20 second clip. The narrator’s stony voice, the hushed whisper at the end, and—perhaps most importantly for my point—the clap of thunder and rain at the end of the chapter all provide the atmosphere that is quintessential to the gothic novel. While the text of the novel does not need these added elements in order to be gothic, I nonetheless think they add something valuable to it.

Yet despite all of these benefits, audiobooks are still not considered “serious” by the academy. Davidson asserts that after the introduction of iPods, “sound suddenly had a new educational role in our text- and visuals-dominated classroom” (66). While this may have been the case at Duke in 2003, I do not think it remains so for universities as a whole. Listening to audiobooks instead of regular books is certainly not encouraged, and I’m hesitant to even admit that I do.

When I was talking about this issue the other day with someone —who is also a self-admitted audiobook fanatic—he asked me: “How do you talk in class about a book you listen to? You can’t close read it, right?” And no, you can’t close read, but you can close listen, and I, for one, think that that is just as good.

7 thoughts on “Close Listening”

  1. I like how you draw our attention to the ways in which we privilege optics in our understanding of reading/learning, Heather. It seems like a big part of this class shows that expanding our understanding of what reading (and writing) offers affordances beyond those in more reading/writing more traditionally defined.

    I’m curious–as someone who has only limited experience with auditory learning and reading–what you get out of reading in that form that is different than when you read a paper or even digital text? How does listening change your comprehension or focus?

    The one time I listened to an audio book while driving, I promised I’d never do so again. Not because it wasn’t entertaining–it totally was!–but because I couldn’t remember anything about having navigated to my destination. I don’t think it was safe for me to be so fully immersed in an audiotext that I couldn’t recall the 2 hour drive I had just made!

  2. Heather,

    I like that you draw attention to audiobooks. I don’t listen to them frequently, but I have listened to a few plays as BBC Radio Dramas (I’m especially fond of listening to Shakespeare as opposed to reading the texts). I think that close reading and close listening may not be the same exact thing, but that they are both valuable. When my friend, for example, lamented needing to read Othello, I sent her an audio link with the comment that the plays are always enriched in performance, even if the performance is audio only.

    I think that there is usually some attention-blindness when I read a text – especially a dramatic text. I will usually focus on a motif, a problem, a feminist reading I can make, those types of things. When I listen, however, I focus on the performative possibilities of the text. To break that down, when I read my focus is on the internal and when I listen its on the external. (Though this is certainly not a hard and fast rule – Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, reveal a lot of their wit and wordplay when read aloud).

  3. I am not a big – or even a small- fan of audio books, and I’m not really comfortable with audio performances. Maybe because I never learned how to enjoy radio programs and this life long antipathy is hunting my new encounters with audio narrations. However, reading your interesting post and related comments, as my mind is always looking for adaptation’s signs in its infinite forms , I can say that this audio-lizing of written texts is also an act of adaptation; and adaptation has always been needed for the survival of a genre, a culture, a cell etc. The possibility of listening to a text rather than reading it is not only the result of a text-to-audio adaptation in the digital age but also the beginning of our human senses’ adaptation to perform each other’s roles in a world that is constantly generating hybrid outputs.

  4. Heather,

    I suspect that the distinction between close reading and close listening is a generative one. Here are my first thoughts:

    1) In a way that slightly surprises me, I find that listening demands my full attention in ways that reading does not. As a reader, I can scan, skim, skip, reread, dart about the page—but I can’t do that as a listener. Listening to a text absorbs me in ways that reading one often does not.

    2) But I also feel able to manipulate—to own, to remix, to reflect upon—a written text, while audio texts often seem to rush by me. It is hard for me, that is, at this point, to imagine being a critical listener in the ways I feel I know how to be a critical reader.

    A post that set me to thinking!


  5. Heather,

    This post really resonated with me, as I have taken in the past year to listening to audio books as a way to make good use of the hour or so I spent each day commuting between Wilmington and Newark. Like you, I am a ridiculously slow reader, and when I sit down for long periods of time with text, I will find that my attention wanders while my eyes continue to gloss over the words. Unlike Joe, however, this problem plagues me even in listening. Sometimes my thoughts will wander, and I’ll realize I haven’t absorbed anything I heard for the last 30 seconds or so. I can’t even tell you how many times I rewound _Northanger Abbey_ over the past week to start listening to the same section again. Maybe my reading/listening experiences are so similar because I’m not very skilled at skimming texts (whenever I try to do so, I feel like I’ve absorbed next to nothing.) Or maybe I just have a bad undiagnosed case of ADD 🙂

    Listening to audiobooks in the car has been an incredibly productive use of time for me, and it’s a strategy I think I’ll continue to use in the future. But the one big wall I hit is my inability to annotate the text. If I don’t write down my thoughts while they occur to me in the moment, they’re as good as lost. This might be partly a function of the fact that I’m listening in the car, where I have no use of my hands to take notes on a separate sheet of paper. But even so, I think there’s something different about having the words in front of you visually, and responding to them in writing. To remedy this, I’ve taken to listening to a text first, making mental notes of passages that intrigued me, and then returning to them in print to generate original thoughts/responses. Not a perfect solution. But for a slow reader and commuter, it’s still a better use of my time than not!


    1. Kiley,

      This post sounds like it could have been written by me. I also frequently rewind (and I’ve found this to be especially true with Northanger Abbey). The ideal situation is when a text is available in audiobook and in search html (like pretty much everything that is in the public domain, between project gutenberg and librivox). When I know a text is accessible both ways, I will write down key words from a passage I want to go back to, and then use those key words to find the print text to further analyze/refresh my memory. There are definitely challenges to using audiobooks in scholarly contexts, but I still wouldn’t trade them for the world.

  6. I can also relate to the pleasure of listening to audiobooks, and the simultaneous frustration of not being able to bookmark or underline something. I think part of the problem with “critical listening,” especially if you are using it as a supplement or even replacement for reading texts to be discussed critically (in class, for example) is that the ways in which we discuss texts still so much privilege the printed text–drawing attention to certain passages, page numbers, etc.. For better or worse, our engagement with still focused on being able to see the words on the page (be it paper or digital), rather than the completely intangible, if just as detailed absorption of the text via hearing.

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