What Is Reading?

A Tale of Two Cities, Four Ways by Linda Gardner (grandgrrl/flickr.com)

Whether I’m flipping paper pages, scanning through an ebook, listening to an audiobook or reading into a mic, reading a book is reading a book. Or is it?

As much as anyone, I live through words. I’ve been a professional actor. I’ve edited books. I’ve written them. I’ve narrated audiobooks. I’ve designed ebooks. It would be reasonable to say my life centers around words — that my life centers around reading.

But what does that mean?

My earliest memories have to do with books: being read to by my parents, reading along to picture books narrated on scratchy 45s, hiding under my covers with a flashlight and The Hobbit or Encyclopedia Brown. Many of my dearest adult memories are book related: reading the same copy of Ender’s Game side-by-side with my soon-to-be-wife; reading Where the Wild Things Are to my first-born and realizing that I remembered every word, having not seen the book in twenty-five years; reading all seven of the Harry Potter books (and many others) aloud to each of my daughters.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly reading is — because no longer is it a straightforward matter of picking up a piece or pieces of paper and looking over the words printed there. More and more, we take in words differently — whether we’re viewing them on a computer or ereader screen, or we’re taking the text in aurally with the help of a narrator or a text-to-speech program. In the past year, in addition to working on print and ebooks, I’ve created a picture book — yet another mode — as well as audiobooks.

So… is reading simply reading? Or does a change in medium fundamentally change the experience?

I have begun to realize that, for me, approaching a book through each of these modes of “reading” brings me down a very different path: that I really notice the language and the individual details in listening to an audiobook; that while ebooks make for a wonderfully quick read, they somehow aren’t quite as immersive as sitting with a bound ink-on-paper volume; that reading aloud, whether to someone in the room or into a mic as a narrator, makes me very conscious of the characters and the emotions, and of the affect the author is trying to have on the reader.

I’m still engaged in the same flow of ideas and arguments, characters and plots. I arrive, ultimately, at the same place. The words are the same.

The person who’s read them, however, is quite different.

Image by Linda Gardner (grandgrrl/flickr.com); used under a Creative Commons license

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