We, Too, Are Committed To The Word

May 27th, 2005 · 4 Comments
by Booksquare

Please pardon us while we work through our confusion. It centers on the definition of the word “word”. While we are too lazy to pull out the OED, we are not too lazy to consult with the fine folks at dictionary.com. They, oddly, have the same definition we have for the word:

A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes.

We bring this up because the recent article in the New York Times quotes Frank McCourt as saying:

“I think every writer would rather have people read books, committed as we are to the word,” said Frank McCourt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.” “But I’d rather have them listen to it than not at all.”

In the fine, long history of storytelling, we vaguely recall a branch for oral renditions. Granted, this was before electricity, so it’s clearly an old-fashioned concept. We are, frankly, unclear about why listening to a book is considered a lesser form of reading. Isn’t it all about immersion in the story? We’ve heard tales of couples who actually consider reading aloud to each other to be a romantic endeavor. Of course, they likely engage in radical activities like bringing each other cups of coffee, so their behavior should be considered suspect from the get-go.

File Under: Square Pegs

4 responses so far ↓

  • Karen // May 27, 2005 at 9:42 am

    Maybe it’s considered a lesser form of reading because, on the surface at least, it seems more passive. If you’re looking at a page of test, you have to make sense of the symbols, then translate it into a sort of “hearing” in your brain (of course, this contradicts the idea that people read in chunks — which are hard to pronounce, let alone hear — not individual words, but never mind), and then translate it. If you’re just listening, part of the work has been done for you. All the inflections are there (depending on the reader), so you know how to interpret. Also — if you’re listening, when it’s gone, it’s gone. (But maybe that means it’s more active? You have to pay closer attention to follow things?) On the page, you can go back and reread and think about the words before you move on. So you take in more, which seems like a richer experience. But then there are those millenia of oral tradition . . . so now I’ve thoroughly confused myself. But really, Ms. Square, I just know there has to be a convincing argument that will back up my instinctive feeling that on the page is better.

  • Karen // May 27, 2005 at 9:44 am

    That would be “page of text,” not “test.” Cobbling together a coherent argument is hard enough without damn typos.

  • Saundra // May 27, 2005 at 10:00 am

    The way words lay on the page actually matters to me- the little stairs that coincidentally happen when three successive lines happen to have a word with an e just one space off from the one above it, or the way a series of Hs and Os and Bs make swirls and humps that flow like water. Sometimes these are accidental, sometimes they are intentional, but it’s one of the visceral pleasures that define reading to me. That, along with the privacy and opportunity to hear all the voices, the inflections- to make the interpretations of *who* a character is, what sounds and accents and tones influenced them- without having them filtered through someone else’s understanding of the text- I reckon that’s why some people consider it lesser (I just consider it different.)

  • Booksquare // May 27, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Karen, it was a great argument. You know I appreciate someone who can debate themselves right into the middle…my inclination is the page. I like the page. But I spent an afternoon floating in the hammock, listening to Reading Lolita in Tehran (and enjoying the part where I was listening to reading) and thinking that I really loved the author’s voice in my ears (at least I believe it’s the author — if not, it’s how I want her to sound). I do have to pay close attention and I’m experiencing the book differently.

    Saundra, very interesting. I thought I was the only one who got into the patterns on pages (it’s always comforting to know that I’m not fully weird!). Of course, when I hear the words, I get an entirely different sense of pattern — while not every writer has one, many do have a certain rhythm to their work. This is, sadly, why I found Ayn Rand so addictive back in my impressionable youth. I could hear a beat in her work that kept me moving forwad (said beat, of course, turning to a funeral dirge during the long philosophical speeches). I like it when the reader catches that rhythm in the audio version, though I “hear” in the printed version.

    Yes, I’m a reader who knows no boundaries. I listen to books, I read books. It’s all just fine by me.