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On Reading

An old-school book lover in praise of the audiobook

Brian Howe admits, “I don’t always take easily to new technology.” He still doesn’t use an e-reader—not, he explains, as an ethical matter but because texts for his obscure reading tastes, like small-press poetry, are generally not available as e-books.

But, Howe says, he has become a fan of audiobooks. He started when a new job required a long commute. He started with genre fiction and with books he’d already read in print. Gillian Flynn’s “_Gone Girl_ was the turning point when audiobooks began to shed their guilty pleasure status.” He found the actors who read the parts of Nick and Amy so captivating that when he saw what he calls “the horridly miscast movie, I hated it, because those voice actors were Nick and Amy to me.”

I had a similar concern with the Harry Potter series. I’ve never read any of the books in print. I came to all of them through the captivating audio versions narrated by Jim Dale. Although Dale read the whole book himself, he used several voices for the various characters. When the first Harry Potter movie was set to debut, I wondered if Jim Dale’s reading would spoil the experience of hearing different voices by the actors in the movie. But it didn’t, even though I loved Dale’s reading.

For Howe, “The best audiobooks transcend mere recitations to become dramatic productions, somewhere between novels and plays.” Although I loved Jim Dale’s variety of voices, I prefer that approach of a single reader to more dramatic audio representations in which different actors voice the various characters. I find such representations slightly annoying because they break for me the feeling that I’m still “reading” a work of literature. Plays are good things, but I also love the fact of having a novel’s world build up in my head as I read. Audiobooks with multiple readers break that illusion for me by making a book seem more like a theatrical presentation than a novel.

But I am glad to read Howe’s admission that “Audiobooks will never replace reading for me, but they have become a unique, enriching annex of it.” I’ve never understood why many readers are so eager to think in dichotomies, forcing us to choose between print and e-books, and between reading and listening. Why do we have to choose just one? I have room in my own life for print books, e-books, and audiobooks. One isn’t inherently better than the others. They’re just different choices available to allow us to experience literature under different circumstances.

Is Literary Adaptation Better on Film or on Television?

M. King Adkins addresses a different question: Which is better, a film or a television adaptation of a book? Adkins cites the statistic that “between 1994 and 2013, 58 percent of the top grossing movies produced were some sort of adaptation (Novels into Films: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema, George Bluestone, 2003).”

When we read a novel, Adkins writes, we know the end is coming as the stack of pages under our right hand becomes thinner and thinner.

Television series, on the other hand just don’t resolve, at least not until they must. Instead, they actively avoid resolution, delaying it to the last possible moment: the finalé (and how many of those have turned out to be satisfying?)

And, Adkins continues, video games go television even one better by allowing us to participate in the acting out, and thereby the writing, of the narrative. This brings him to the following conclusion:

I doubt very much we will stop pushing the generic boundaries until it’s possible to plug our brains directly into the computer and live out an alternative existence. Mark my words: one of these days, you’ll notice, in fine print at the bottom of your vision, “This life is based on the book by…”

‘Writing America’ identifies our literary landmarks

In “Writing America,” Stanford professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin surveys the literary landscape, exploring the ways American writers have influenced, and been influenced by, their surroundings. Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act, the book traces the footsteps of William Faulkner, Allen Ginsberg, Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others.

4 Steps to Read Like a Writer

The Write Practice is a web site aimed at helping fiction writers get better at their craft. To be a good writer one must also be a good reader, and in this article Ruthanne Reid explains how to read like a writer. But even if you don’t aspire to write fiction, you can become a better reader.

According to Reid, there are four steps to reading like a writer:

(1) Marking passages that you find particularly moving while reading. You can’t analyze effective passages unless you can find them. For this Reid recommends—no surprise here—the use of sticky notes.

(2) Asking three big questions:

  • What was powerful?
  • Why was it powerful?
  • How did it achieve that power?

(3) Mimicking your favorite books. Practice writing in other writers’ styles so that you can discover your own.

(4) Practicing.

Read Reid’s explanations of how to perform these four steps to help you read like a writer.

Related material: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. See especially the first chapter, entitled “Close Reading.”