Back when I was in high school, I worked at my town’s local library. Looking back at the job, it was probably one of the best (if not the best) jobs I’ve ever had. I say that because retrospectively, no other job allowed me to flip through interesting books all day (even though I suppose I did that on the sly). I would spend my afternoons organizing shelves, checking out what books patrons were taking out, and covering (or re-covering) books with plastic so that they always looked and felt fresh (but that’s where it ended, because no matter how many times you cover a book in new plastic, you could never cover up that old-book stink).
Of all the things I did at the library, my favorite days were the ones I’d spend in the back room, creating art for the windows. I don’t remember how I earned that job, or how often I was tasked with a new window, but I do remember spending hours in that back room—piecing together construction paper, lining my work with thick black sharpie, and blowing through glue stick after glue stick as I organized the shapes like a puzzle in order to create different scenes. And for all the time I spent alone working on these murals, the time felt like it flew by. This could have been because of amount of fun I had creating these pieces, but I also think it was what I listened to while I worked, that made it fly. Because this was a library, I had complete access to the CDs and DVDs that were in stock, and I used that unlimited access to monopolize the Harry Potter audiobooks.
Every shift, I would place one of the disks into the little boom box we kept in the back and get completely wrapped up in the wizarding world. In his slightly-Americanized English accent, the melodic voice of Harry Potter narrator Jim Dale would quietly guide me through the books, chapter after chapter, shift after shift.
But for all the hours I spent listening to these books over and over, I never felt as though I were reading the stories. When I talk about the series with friends (and yes, I roll with a crowd where this conversation comes up at least once a year), I never count the times I’ve listened to the stories when someone asks how many times I’ve read the books. I mean, why would I? My eyes never saw a single word of Rowling’s writing, my mind never gave voice to the words of the characters, and I never exhausted my eyes to the point where I’d fall asleep mid chapter.
But with that said, it never felt right to not include my listening sessions because so much of my listening experience was the same as my reading experience. Just as if I were reading the books myself, I experienced every word of Rowling’s writing and I watched every scene play out in my mind. Just like reading, I felt emotional during the exciting parts and nervous during the finale scenes. Essentially, I felt all the same things I would have, had I been reading the book.
So should it count as reading the book? Or am I cheating the book?
A few years ago, this question came up when I tried to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Trying to read that book was an epic failure. With too much time spent on only three chapters worth of progress, I turned to the audiobook—and it helped… significantly. Although I experienced her language through my earbuds instead of on the page, it was fulfilling. For a while there, I even felt influenced by her writing style, as I found myself mimicking a certain type of grace in my work emails that had not been there prior (which was… awkward, but only because I was emailing people that clearly had no time for grace or beauty in their writing. They were NYS Medicare employees and they refused to read anything over 5 sentences long). I got all the positive side effects of reading a beautiful classic book, without having to actually read it.
This month, under the insistence of NSBCBC podcast panelist Amanda, I dipped my foot in the audiobook pool yet again, in order to “read” David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. (Side note: I tried to illegally download it because I didn’t want to wait for the library copy to arrive, and I didn’t want to pay the $20 it cost on i tunes. However, my foray into small time crime didn’t pay because I immediately downloaded a virus that took days to get out of my computer. Oy… never again.) Anyway, the experience thus far has been pretty great (aside from that virus business) and it has me thinking—perhaps this is the way some authors need to be absorbed. For example, a friend of mine tried to read this book and didn’t love it, but now that I’ve heard the audiobook, maybe she would have enjoyed it had she heard the author’s delivery of the text instead. His voice, his pauses, his pronunciation—it all adds so much to the stories that I’m not sure they’d be as rewarding without him.
But it this reading? Technically, no. But am I experiencing the story? Absolutely! I’m absorbing every word, learning new things, and experiencing feelings with every page that passes. And isn’t that what reading is all about? Whichever way you decide to take in a story, it is still a rewarding experience.
So the next time someone asks how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter stories, I’ll include the times I’ve listened, because really, shouldn’t the question actually be, “how many times have you experienced the story?”
– Nina Sclafani