A Vital Skill
Jill Carattini explores how listening to a book can amplify ideas we may have missed in reading and invite us to pay attention.
“I like to listen,” mused Ernest Hemingway. “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.”
Hemingway speaks of a significant virtue, lamenting accurately, “Most people never listen.”1
I wonder if he would feel differently if it were his books to which people were listening.
The popularity of audio books is redefining the notion of reading, and some authors—and readers—are unhappy about it. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said literary critic Harold Bloom. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”2
Others who doggedly defend the entire experience of reading—the feel of a book in their hands, the smell of its pages, the single-minded escape of delving into a story—find listening to a book something akin to cheating. “You didn’t read it,” they contest. “You only listened to it”—as if this somehow means they took in a different story.
For those who love the written word and printed page, for those who are elated at the sight of a bookstore, listening to Hamlet or The Count of Monte Cristo is akin to picking up Cliff Notes. There is no substitute for books, no surrogate for reading.
I mostly agree. I find myself responding to the question, “Have you read such and such?” with a similar admittance of guilt: “Well, I listened to it” (usually accompanied with a comment about Atlanta traffic). And yet, I am becoming more and more convinced that audio books definitely have their place in learning—with or without traffic. Auditory processing is vital to any learning.
Hemingway was right; listening carefully is a vital skill.
I find that I pick up different facets when I listen to a paragraph rather than what I might have gleaned from reading that same paragraph. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a book I have read many times. When I bought the book on CD, however, I found listening to the work an entirely different, altogether helpful experience. Interestingly, Mere Christianity began as a series of lectures for the radio, perhaps amplifying its effectiveness as an audio book.
Of course, much of the Bible has a similar origin, resonating powerfully in both oral and written traditions. The importance of memorization and oral tradition in Israelite culture played a significant role in bringing the collected works of Scripture into being. Listening to narratives, songs, and the Torah being read aloud was an integral part of keeping the name of God and the history of God’s presence before people of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are charged with the command to remember and to listen. “Hear O Israel the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Listening carefully was imperative to living before the God among them.
And it still is. In homes where Christians are not violently punished for owning a Bible, in countries where it is not a crime to read these sacred texts, there is a tendency to dismiss the wonder of a God who speaks. As countless translations continue to emerge, it is easy to overlook the authority of words that are strikingly reliable as historical documents, words that continue to come into new generations and change cultures with new influence. Read aloud or studied silently, God’s word is still speaking, crying out for ears to hear and hearts to search. Indeed, Christ himself, the living Word, rises from the pages, revealing that the Bible is always far more than a book.
When Ezra read aloud the words of the law before a generation who had forgotten, the people wept in the presence of the LORD and immediately fell down in worship. When the apostle Paul’s letter was read aloud to the Roman church, its words resounded similarly among the crowd: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” 3
If the voice of God is still speaking, if the kingdom is among us, the question is a vital one: Who among us will listen?
2 Quoted in “The Pleasure of Being Read To” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker (May 14, 2012), accessed 5 October 2018 at https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-pleasures-of-being-read-to.
3 Romans 10:17.
This article appears in Just Thinking magazine 27.1.