I have often written about the atmosphere of reading, how the presence of books in the home, parents who read, and reading aloud to children makes reading a way of life for them, so I don’t know why I am chagrined by my grown children commenting, when some offhand remark about audio books occurs, “The sound of my childhood.” Perhaps it is because I fear that the droning of my cassette player was a barrier to my availability to them. Their background noise was not TV, but the voices of my favorite narrators as I cooked or did housework. In self-defense, I assure you I never used earphones; That would have been negligence as, for a blind mother, ears are most crucial for “keeping an eye” on the children.
Listening to books was a way of life for me, long, long before it became popular. In 1960, when my “talking book machine” arrived in the mail from the state Library for the Blind – an enormous boxy machine that played records on three speeds for special longer playing records, my parents were more excited than I was, because I didn’t know what an enormous world was about to unfold for me with this access to literature.
Thus it was that I became a reader of books by ear, though, gratefully, I later learned to read Braille and prefer that format. Probably four-fifths of the books I read in a year, however, are still recorded books. For me, as an insatiable reader, it is a matter of survival since relatively few books are produced in Braille anymore.
When I read The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I was surprised to learn that the neural pathways in the brain that are formed by the reading of print material are the same in blind readers of Braille. The tracks formed by those who read aurally, on the other hand, are not the same. Though I’m delighted with the proliferation of audio books and their wide use, this raises a concern, especially their use with children. Children are natural story lovers, and listening to books in the car, at bedtime, or as they play is one way of nourishing them. Yet the alarming decline in reading for pleasure is not being offset by this kind of reading, I’m afraid. The two ways of reading are not alike, as mentioned. Will children develop true habits of reading if they are consuming primarily audio books?
Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, intrigued me with his description of earlier eras when crowds were accustomed to listen to long orations of two to four hours length, whether sermons or political speeches. Further back, the reading of the Book of the Law must have taken considerable time, and that all-day Sermon on the Mount had the intently listening multitude fainting with hunger. Nowadays, to listen to more than a 20 minute lecture or sermon wearies the audience. Our aural skills have declined.
Our children need hours and hours of practice reading with their eyes if they are to truly become book readers. In our fast-paced lifestyle, having books in the car’s CD player is convenient, and I would never discourage children from listening to books for pleasure anytime, (a definite improvement over screen time) but only mention that the different formats utilize different areas of the brain, and listening to books is not necessarily a substitute for holding one in the hand and reading it.
Visual reading is a skill and a habit that takes constant practice to develop proficiency. Listening to books is akin to standing in a river while the current flows around you; reading the book for yourself is like swimming that river. Once children can read, they ought to read for themselves as much as possible to ensure a life-long habit. Though I add, without having researched for scientific data to back me, a live person, rather than a recorded one, reading to a child increases their interest and absorption far more than a recorded voice. While recorded books have their place, they are no substitute for taking time to sit down to read together. Children benefit from this interaction both intellectually and emotionally.
These are some thoughts I have had on this subject of audio books for children. I am not advocating dispensing with audiobooks, just offering some cautionary considerations for their wise and discriminate use. Reading is wonderful in all ways. “He who has ears to hear,” let him understand that eyes are a gift that should not be neglected.