August 4, 2011

When words collide

I enjoy the MacBreak Weekly podcast. Leo Laporte, the podcast host, is a huge fan of longtime sponsor He speaks frequently about how many audiobooks he “reads,” and this always gives me pause.

Hearing someone recite a text is equivalent to reading for some people, I guess, but it very much isn’t for me.

Verbal input, whether I see it or hear it, triggers huge cascades of mental processing. I am prone to becoming immersed in those cascades: analyzing word roots, parsing the grammar, identifying more appropriate synonyms, feeling the scansion, relating the meaning to the immediate and overall narrative context and to everything else in my experience.

Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, describes Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect’s experience of being subjected to a Vogon poetry reading, strapped into “Poetry Appreciation chairs” with electrodes stuck to their temples:

These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten the experience of the poem and make sure that not a single nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.

That’s what reading and listening are like for me, all the time.

When (or if) that cognitive bloom finishes playing itself out and my brain settles down enough to return me to my senses, I move on and take in the next bit of text—but if the text is being read to me, then I have already missed any number of words (sentences, paragraphs) that were spoken in the interim. Normal interpersonal conversation is light enough for me to keep up with, but really good dense prose just jams up in my ears.

Verbal communication is linear, but I do not comprehend it linearly. I can’t listen to audiobooks.

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