I spend a lot of time with people who love books, authors, and readers. In almost every case, the conversations are positive, extolling the virtues of the written word and expressing our mutual love of story. However, I’ve recently encountered something new. Okay, maybe it’s not new, but these conversations seem more prevalent. It appears that some “book people” are dividing into separate camps, either validating or decrying a particular reading method. Some readers claim that “real books” are the only proper path to literacy. They lust after the “real” aroma of the ink and the feel of the pages in their hands. Opponents remind of the weight and fragility of paper books. Some vehemently decry E-books. They claim that pixels on a screen are only shadows of actual books. They say reading this way is cheating the reader out of a valid reading experience. Enthusiasts of E-books claim that the ease of accessibility makes them more infatuating than paper. Still, others argue that listening to Audiobooks isn’t really reading at all. At the same time, Audiobook devotees remind that they’d never read a thing if not for the multi-tasking merits of Audiobooks.
Encountering these comments has made me consider my own path to my reading practice and why I read the way I do.
I have a photograph of myself, snuggled in bed with a book and a stuffed dog. I was about fifteen months old when my mother took the photo. I learned the magic of story at a very young age. It was one of the best gifts my parents gave me. I memorized the books my family read to me long before I understood how the writing code could be cracked. Story was my constant companion. Even before I could read, I always had a book nearby. They were my favorite toys. As soon as I could talk, I’m told, I began creating my own tiny adventures to share with my siblings.
At four years old, I lost the hearing in my left ear due to an illness. Through the frustrating years of speech therapy and dissecting body language to help me interpret the mumbles, I learned to navigate the world differently than other kids. Although I couldn’t perceive music or language the way everyone else could, the written word offered the promise of possibility. Each piece of cardboard held between its two flaps vibrant worlds filled with remarkable people and animals who could talk to me… even though I couldn’t see their lips moving.
As I grew, words became my sanctuary in moments of sadness, anger, and joy. I discovered the opportunity of a level playing field where my hearing loss didn’t matter. Inside the world of pages, my friends and I were equal. Life exploded with color and movement, and none of it relied on the precision of sound. It was spectacular. Elementary school was joyful for me. While other kids had to be coaxed into reading with the promise of free pizza coupons, the only motivation I needed was the librarian’s assurance that a book would be “a fun read.”
As I grew older, I went to sleepovers at friends’ houses and then to “sleep away” camp. I rediscovered the wonder of storytelling without the pages. We huddled in blanket forts and sat around campfires sharing adventures. We engaged our imaginations with the “what if” game, retelling old stories with our own twists or making up brand new ones. At night, I nestled under my blankets with a flashlight and wrote down all that I could remember. I regret that I’ve lost those pages to time… but I’m grateful that I paid attention. For it was in those early years that my writing journey began.
In middle school, I was the kid with her nose in a book while walking down the hall from one class to the next (no, I never bumped into anyone). During my lunch hour, I read while others were gossiping about young teenage things. I was too busy to care, as I went on adventures with Alice In Wonderland, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, and The Brothers Grimm. I traveled with National Geographic and tried to understand adult things with U.S. News & World Report. The library became my favorite “Fortress of Solitude,” and I spent hours digging through the endless rows of books. I was the odd kid who saw the card catalogue as clues to a wondrous treasure hunt. During summer vacation, I asked my parents to give me a topic, and I spent hours at the library doing research for papers that would never be graded. Writing them filled my time. Yes, I was that kid. Of course, I also spent hours riding my bike with my friends… we nearly always ended up at the library. And, sure, I also went to the city swimming pool with my friends on hot summer afternoons, but I almost always took along a book. After all, what else was there to do during those fifteen minutes of every hour designated as “adult-only swim”?
In high school, I encountered an amazing transformation of the written word in the form of the theatre. Stage plays are a brand of storytelling magic unique to this world. It takes wizards and witches to make those words come alive… more so, I believed (and still do) than in film and television, precisely because the audience's energy changes the words at every performance. I fell hard into the scripts of William Shakespeare, Anne Frank, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, and John Steinbeck. I was provoked by the differences between the words written on the page versus those acted upon the stage… and I rejoiced in the similarities. I discovered a new way to read and write, a new way to become gloriously overwhelmed by story.
When my son was born, I revived the joy of reading aloud, for him and for me. For each book I bought for my son at the Scholastic Book Fair, I also purchased the accompanying “book on tape.” Audiobooks became our entertainment in the car on long trips and his reward for going to bed on time (staying up “late” to listen to just one more story). Like a story presented on the stage, there is a unique cadence to a book shared only through the voice. Memory triggers of childhood emotion and understanding are reawakened when the vibration of the voice plays upon the air without the aid of visual interpretation or even the letters from which it was born. Storytellers add their own expressions to the tale. Each reader will offer something new to the listener, even if the words have been read or heard a thousand times before. Think of the difference between hearing Neil Gaiman reading his work versus some other voice reading Neil Gaiman’s work. The story is different simply because the reader becomes a part of the story they are telling. It cannot be avoided, nor should it be. Each story will reach a listener differently, depending on the voice who delivers it.
Now that my son has grown and I’m enjoying the second half of my lifetime, I’m still enthused by books and writing. I honor the written word as sacred, no matter what form it comes in. Whether a paper book, magazine, Audiobook, podcast, or E-book… all of it is valid to me. Each has its place within the delivery of story, and each has its own moment of convenience. I still read paper books and magazines curled up with the dogs on the couch. I also love audiobooks, E-books, and podcasts to fill my time when doing chores around the house, while traveling, or at nighttime, just before sleep. None is more precious to me than the other. None is less important. I don’t judge another reader for their choices in material or delivery… as long as people read, that’s enough for me.
So I say, read. Take in every word… whether printed, pixeled, or spoken. Immerse yourself in books and in the tradition of storytelling. Which way is the best way to do that? I don’t think it matters. Just share the wonderment of reading with everyone you encounter. Honoring the written word, no matter how you find it, will enhance your experience of life and theirs. That much I know to be true.
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