Becoming Illiterate, Dr Lynley Hood MSc LittD

A paper presented at "Thinking Through Books" the 2012 conference of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, 14-17 November, Dunedin NZ.

Dr Lynley Hood sitting in armchair

On 20 December 2009 I was reading in bed when my left eye went blurry. "Time to put the light out," I thought.

Next morning it was still blurry. I had lost the central vision in my left eye, suddenly and permanently. Then the vision in my right eye began to deteriorate.

The cause turned out to be a rare retinal disorder that goes by the acronym AZOOR (acute zonal occult outer retinopathy). There is no known effective treatment for AZOOR. The prognosis is uncertain.

In the weeks following that first episode, I considered my priorities and made a bucket list ("things to do while I can still see to do them"), but in those anxious early days a single desperate thought possessed me: "Gotta read all those books on my bedside table while I still can!"

Later I considered more practical questions like "If I lose the central vision in my right eye as suddenly as I lost it in my left, can I find the right button on the phone to dial111?" But initially reading was all that mattered.

Reading used to be a pleasure. I used to scan, absorb, and retain reams of written material by what seems in retrospect like osmosis. Now reading ordinary print on ordinary paper feels like submitting myself to repeated episodes of aversion therapy. The contrast is poor from the outset, visual static builds up after a few pages, and -worse still - I make mistakes.

At first I thought the standard of proof reading had plummeted. I would be reading a newspaper, a book or a journal, only to be stopped short by the thought "this doesn't make sense!" I would reread it five or six times. It still wouldn't make sense. Then, when I return to it later, I discover that I have missed out a letter, a word, or a line in a well written piece of work. My dyslexia is caused by the malfunctioning nerves in my retina that make bits of my visual field fade in and out, or switch on and off, at random.

I can still do a reasonable job of reading the Eye Chart. I can read my own work in large print because I already know what it says. I can read other documents in large print onscreen if they don't go on for too long. But after a few pages of unfamiliar text in any format, I'm defeated.

There were times when I thought: “Why am I torturing myself? Nobody is forcing me to read." But I can no more stop reading than I can stop breathing. So to avoid making mistakes I now read very slowly and carefully, dragging my eye from one word to the next across a page. I have gone from whole-language reading to phonics. This is tolerable for short pieces, but it's no way to read a book. For me, it's audiobooks or nothing.

Dr Aidan Flynn, a Scottish GP who developed macular degeneration in his forties, speaks for all book lovers with vision loss:

I loved books, and loved reading. To lose books, and to lose the capacity to read books by yourself, was probably the most devastating part of the condition. I didn't mind giving up the car. I didn't mind not being able to play golf. I didn't mind that so much. What I did mind was not being able to read.

Now there are audio books, there are cassettes, there are various scanners, but it's not the same as simply picking up a book.

During the first couple of years I was so devastated by my inability to read books that when well-meaning people told me how wonderful audio books were I wanted to hit them.

I'm suspicious of all the banality one hears about grief, but in preparation for this paper I bit the bullet and googled "grief acknowledgement", and found the results of a survey conducted by Slate. The report states:

Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn't want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes.

Exactly. To me, the notion that listening to audiobooks is an adequate substitute for reading print books is an empty platitude.

I share my frustration with all New Zealand book lovers who are losing their sight. Compared to other disability groups, the approximately 100,000 New Zealanders with failing eyesight are remarkably silent. This is because getting through the day with low vision is so difficult that most people have no time or energy left to speak out.
However public library staff who distribute reading matter to housebound people tell me that some visually impaired folk try audio books for a while and then say: I'd rather have nothing than listen to one of those.

Nonetheless I have to accept that a lot of people really do love audio books. Since the advent of cassette tapes and portable cassette players sighted people have been listening to audio books in increasing numbers. With the advent of direct downloads, audio book listening has skyrocketed. So why do people listen to audio books?

As I grieve for the books I cannot read and try to make sense of my loss, I listen obsessively to audio books about print books.

My longing to read good books is a bit like the longing to eat good food experienced by Shakleton's men stranded on Elephant Island. Their stores were severely depleted, but one of the men had saved an old recipe book. After they had eaten their meager daily ration they would have a reading. One recipe per night -to make them last. A serious discussion on how the recipe might be improved would follow. Then the men would fall asleep - dreaming of the meal they had not eaten. I'm like that with audio books about print books. I listen for a while, and then fall asleep dreaming of the books I have not read.

I have only recently discovered the online debate about the pros and cons of audiobooks. Prior to that discovery my knowledge of the subject came entirely from my own experience.

I'm not going to address issues of bad writing, abridgement or poor narration. These things can spoil audiobooks, but my problems are with well-written books reading unabridged form by good narrators, because they are the only sort of books I listen to.

These are the problems I have with audio books:

1. Lack of choice

Surveys in the UK have found that only five percent of the world's literature is available in large print, Braille or audio format. The figures are
probably worse for New Zealand. Most of the books I want to read are not available as audio books. Of those that are, a large proportion is exclusively for the use of the blind. The Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind has three of my books in audio format, but I'm not blind enough to be allowed to listen to them.

2. Audio books are incredibly time-consuming

It takes at least three times longer to listen to a book being read aloud as it does to read it on the page. So if you're going to put in the time, the book had better be good. I loved Anna Karenina, but when faced with 38 hours and 20minutes of listening, I decided that if I fell asleep and missed a bit, I didn't care. Life is too short to spend it rewinding Anna Karenina.

3. Audio books can be very soporific

I now set the Audible app on my iPhone to turn itself off after half an hour if I'm listening in bed - but you can't get through many audio books if you only listen for half an hour a day. Of course you can fall asleep reading print books too, but at least you don't lose your place, and if you do it's easy to find it again. In any event I suspect that audiobooks are more soporific than print books because listening to audio books is such a passive process. You don't even have to turn the page.

To avoid falling asleep on the job, I sometimes listen to audio books while I'm engaged in activities that keep my mind still and my hands and feet busy, like housework,
gardening, or going for a walk. But I've come to appreciate that filling those quiet times with words comes at a cost. When I'm alone with my own thoughts the rhythm of whatever I'm doing sets fresh ideas percolating around and rearranging themselves into interesting new patterns. I think there's a case to be made that walking and gardening are forms of meditation. At such times I'd rather be alone with my own thoughts than have a distracting stream of words pouring into my ears.

Some people listen to audiobooks in the car, but I no longer drive, and the conversations I have with strangers on the bus are far more interesting than anything I could ever hear through headphones. So I don't listen to audio books on the bus.

I do listen to audio books on planes, but I don't know why anyone who could read a book would do that. You have to wait for permission to turn on your electronic device, you risk missing announcements while you're listening, and you have to turn off your device long before landing while the people around you go right on reading their books.

However on long-haul flights audio books are really useful because they put you to sleep. I made this discovery on the night flight from San Francisco to Auckland. When we'd been fed and watered and settled in for the night I turned on the last 3 1/2 hours of the life of Charlemagne and went straight to sleep. I woke up when it had finished -and realised I was onto a good thing. So I turned on another audio book and went straight back to sleep. I was woken six hours later for breakfast. I have never slept so well on a trans-Pacific flight.

Now I turn on audio books I've already listened to whenever sleep eludes me.

4. Audio books demand your undivided attention

You can't even think "oh that was interesting" without missing something. That's how I missed the name of a soldier in Bruce Catton's marvellous book on the American Civil War. I continued listening as the narrator recounted colourful tales of derring do, my ears pricked for the soldier's name. It never came. There was no point in rewinding because I had no idea how far to rewind, and if I didn't find his name on my first rewind I would have no idea whether to rewind further or to fast forward a bit. So I gave up.

I compare that experience with my recent search for a passage in Janet Frame's Faces in the Water. It's more than 30 years since I read that book, but I found the passage in seconds. It was a few pages in from the front, on the left hand side, about two thirds of the way down, just before a break in the text. We absorb the geography
of books as we read them. That doesn't happen with audio books.

I enjoyed listening to Philip Roth's memoir The Facts. If I were reading it in print, I would have paused at the end of his musings about his elderly father, re-read the section, and reflected for a moment before continuing - and that simple, effortless, pleasurable act would have fixed the words, the ideas they conveyed, and their place in the geography of the book, in my mind for years to come, because that is how memory works. That is how the books we read become chapters in our own lives.

Oh sure - you can push the pause button in an audiobook, but it seems impolite to cut off the narrator mid-sentence, so you wait until the end of the section - and
how do you know where the end of the section is? You can't just glance down the page. You have to keep listening until the narrative changes direction, and chances are you will be so focussed on pushing the button at exactly the right time by then you will have lost interest in the story.

And once you've pushed "pause", you can waste a lot of time fiddling about with rewind and fast forward, trying to find the right place to put in an electronic bookmark or make an electronic note. All that wasted time -makes you wonder why you thought the passage was so great in the first place. In addition to the passages we savour in print, there are the passages we skim over. You can turn up the speed on an audio book, but if you don't know whether the long boring passage goes on for another two lines or another two pages, it's hard to know when to stop.

By comparison, finding your place in a print book is easy. If you've been away from it for a day or two you can settle into it again by flipping back to a few key paragraphs -perhaps at the start of the chapter, perhaps at the end of the previous one, or perhaps somewhere in the middle where the characters you're reading about last appeared. Rewind buttons can take you back too, but not necessarily to the right place.

With audio books there's also the problem of "how do you spell that?", and the frustration of not having a cast of characters, or a table of contents, or a map, or a timeline, or an index.

So why do sighted people listen to audio books, and why are they so angry with people who say that reading is better than listening? The righteous indignation of the audio book listener is one of the most striking features of the online debate.

Admittedly Mark Lawson was a bit provocative in his 2009 Guardian article headed "It's way past bedtime. Novels are designed to be read, not heard. The audio book boom risks infantilising literature".

Lawson's beef is not with drivers or joggers or the visually impaired. It is with people who are "too lazy to take in the information visually". He deplores "book listeners
who could take in the narrative the old-fashioned way but simply choose not to." He says, "For students to experience literature merely through the ears is unforgivable".
He supports his case with this argument: "There is a visual quality to good writing -the shape and sequencing of the sentences, the length of words and paragraphs, the interruptions of punctuation -that pleads to be seen."

In the 89 responses to Lawson's article posted online before comments closed the following day, phrases like"intellectual snobbery", "pompous twaddle" and "patrician nonsense" featured prominently.

In the US, less provocative commentators fare no better. Literary critic Harold Bloom expressed his doubts about audio books in a New York Times interview this way:
"Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you." Essayist Sven Birkerts argued that all good reading involves self-mediation, effort, a collaboration between the reader and the book, whereas audio books determine everything - pace, timbre, inflection - for the captive audience. Blogger and critic Scott Esposito took a less scholarly line: "Don't go pretending like you're some kind of big time reader because you consumed the entire works of Balzac via mp3. No, you're some guy who listened to an ipod while cooking dinner."

But according to audio book enthusiast Maggie Gram, writing in N+1, the only difference between Bloom, Birkerts and Esposito is that Esposito is less careful to maskhis snobbery. Other audio book enthusiasts, most notably Amy Harmon in the New York Times, and John Colapinto in the New Yorker, are equally dismissive of Bloom's concerns, though it's clear from their comments that Bloom is taking the flack for lots of other people who give audiobook listeners a hard time. Gram writes: "Every time a book comes up in conversation your dude friends will ask "Did you listen to that on audio book?," and then they will laugh. Less dude-like people, people less invested in making fun of you, will just cock their heads to the side and ask you why you do it. As if liking books were not enough! As if it weren't the best thing in the world to have someone read to you!"

Harmon quotes an audio book enthusiast who says, "I dislike it when I meet people who feel listening is inferior," and another who complains of an officemate saying"'I like to read my books' - like that makes her better than me", and of other officemates who correct her when she mentions having read a book. "They'll say, 'You didn't read it, you just listened to it.'"

Gram, Harmon and Colapinto argue that, as a means of bringing literature to people, audio books are as good as, if not better than, print books, and therefore people should be free to consume literature in whatever form suits them best.

They describe the pleasure of audio books as the pleasure of being read to, and the convenience of audiobooks as the convenience of being able to do something else at the same time. Interestingly, these arguments actually support the case against audio books made by Lawson, Bloom, Birkerts and Esposito -that listening to audio books is a passive process favoured by people who for whatever reason can't or don't want to give print
books their full attention.

In an attempt to add weight to the case for audio books, some commentators fall back on the appeal-to-tradition fallacy: audio books are better because they're part of the preliterate, oral storytelling tradition. John Colapinto writes: Homer, after all, was an oral storyteller, as were all 'literary artists' who came before him, back to when storytelling, around the primal campfire, would have been invented -grounds perhaps for the argument that our brains were first (and thus best) adapted to absorb long, complex fictions by ear, rather than by eye. He runs the idea past neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran who replies "Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing probably
150,000 years ago and to some extent is 'hard wired'; whereas writing is 5000 to 7000 years old.... So it's possible listening to speech (including such things as cadence, rhythm and intonation) is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centers - hence more evocative and natural." But when he adds a caveat: "On the other hand reading allows you to pause and reflect and go back to do a second take," Colapina writes huffily, "I'd argue that's what the rewind button is for." Yeah right.

Of course oral story telling and reading books aloud are not the same thing, but if we put that quibble aside, the point remains that old doesn't automatically equate with better. Of course new doesn't automatically equate with better either. In fact age is irrelevant in this context.

From the online debate I'm bound to conclude that audio books and print books are very different means of communication, and are used in very different ways. I suspect my problems with audio books arise from my hope and expectation that they would be the auditory equivalent of print books; that I could absorb them in depth; that I could listen to them and think at the same time. I was wrong.

But could the audio book enthusiasts be right - that it doesn't matter how you consume your literature? Audio or print, whichever suits you best. That question sent me back to Proust & the Squid: the story of Science & the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Reading and LanguageResearch at Tufts University.

I was so entranced by the audio version of that book I bought a print copy so I could look up the passages I wanted to reread and reflect on -and then realised a terrible
truth: to find passages in a book, you have to have read it first. However, Wolf's book has a table of contents and an index, and I've listened to the audio version a few more times, both awake and asleep.

Wolf understands why people love books. She writes of "the thrilling sensations elicited by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain", of learning to "roam with abandon through Middle Earth, Lilliput and Narnia", of trying on the experiences of those we would never meet "princes and paupers, dragons and damsels, Kungwarriors, and a German-Jewish girl hiding in a Dutch attic from Nazi soldiers." She writes: reading enables us to try on, identify with, and ultimately enter for a brief time the wholly different perspective of another person's conscience. When we pass over into how a knight thinks, how a slave feels, how a heroine behaves, and how an evildoer can regret or deny wrongdoing, we never come back quite the same; sometimes we're inspired, sometimes saddened, but we are always enriched. Through this exposure we learn both the commonality and the uniqueness of our own thoughts -that we are individuals -but not alone.

Wolf also describes how our brains acquire the skill of reading: Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we changed the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.

There is no gene for reading, Wolf tells us. Reading has to be learned, and that learning is only possible because of the brain's ability to make new connections
among structures and circuits originally devoted to more basic processes, like vision and spoken language.

An aspect of Wolf's work that I think throws light on why some people love audio books while others love print, relates to the number of American children who never become fully fluent readers with accurate comprehension because most elementary school teachers think that reading accurately is enough.

Wolf writes: Children who read from books like Guiness [the Guiness Book of Records] usually decode so smoothly and effortlessly that without our imaging technology we can no longer see what lies beneath.

At this time teachers and parents can be lulled by fluent-sounding reading into thinking that a child understands all the words she or he is reading... Even when a reader comprehends the facts of the content, the goal at this stage is deeper: an increased capacity to apply an understanding of the varied use of words -irony, voice, metaphor, and point of view.

This segment of the journey - which often lasts till young adulthood - has many obstacles. From the start young middle-school readers have to learn how to think in a new way, and although many children are poised to do so, nearly as many are not.

Wolf writes of how imaging technology shows that activity in the fluent comprehending reader's brain is far more streamlined and far more effortless than in the brains of accurate readers who have not attained that level of fluency. Even more interesting is the peak of fluency and comprehension captured by imaging technology in the expert reader's brain.

Here's Wolf again: With it's decoding processes almost automatic, the young fluent brain learns to integrate more metaphorical, inferential, analogical, affective background and experiential knowledge with every newly won millisecond. For the first time in reading development the brain becomes fast enough to think and feel differently. This gift of time is the physiological basis for our capacity to think 'endless thoughts most wonderful.' Nothing is more important in the act of reading.

When I consider the audio book debate in the light of Wolf's work, it seems to me that people who put a high value on reading books - Lawson, Bloom, Birkerts and
Esposito among them - are expert readers. They know there's something extraordinary about the act of reading because they experience it firsthand every time they pick up a book. When Bloom talks of "deep reading", and Birkerts writes of "self-mediation", "effort" and "collaboration between the reader and the book" those of us who love books know exactly what they mean.

This is not the case with people for whom reading means accurately decoding the words on the page. These readers have no idea what book lovers are talking about, and they resent being made to feel inferior.

It's not as if they can't read. It's just that reading is hard work. Why go to the time and effort of reading a book when having it read to you is so much easier?

I want to close with Wolf's comments on the role of literacy in human history, and in our own lives. At a personal level it acknowledges my loss and I'm grateful for that. In
the wider debate it validates the concerns of Harold Bloom and others that people who prefer audio books over print books are missing out on something very important.

Wolf writes: Learning to read released the species from many of the former limitations of human memory. Suddenly our ancestors could access knowledge that would no longer need to be repeated over and over again, and that could expand greatly as a result. Literacy made it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel and thus made possible the more sophisticated inventions that would follow.

Simultaneously, the capacity of literacy for rapid-fire performance released the individual reader not only from the restrictions of memory but from those of time. By it's ability to become virtually automatic, literacy allowed the individual reader to give less time to initial decoding processes and to allocate more cognitive time and ultimately more cortical space to the deeper analysis of recorded thought.

A system that can become streamlined through specialisation and automaticity has more time to think. This is the miraculous gift of the reading brain.

This video was directed, produced and edited by Moana McAuslan and Aaron Oatley, School of Occupational Therapy, Otago Polytechnic.


Aidan Flynn, "Eccentric Viewing Macular DiseaseSociety Film",

Mark Lawson, "It's way past bedtime" Guardian, 10 April 2009

John Colapinto, "The Pleasures of Being Read to," New Yorker, May 16, 2012

Maggie Gram, "Listening to Books," N+1, 9 February 2012

Amy Harmon, "Loud, Proud, Unabridged: It Is Too Reading!" N.Y. Times, May 26, 2005

Maryanne Wolf, Proust & the Squid, HarperCollins NY, 2007

Dr Lynley Hood is an award-winning non-fiction writer.


  • Eye Health Aotearoa
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