Print vs. Audio: A False Dichotomy?

On audio’s place in the world of literature.

by A. É. Coleman, Fiction Reader

I am attempting to answer a question.

In the November 2016 issue of JSTOR Daily, Rebecca Rego Barry discussed the history of audio books in its relationship to the future of print.  Initially, I dismissed the charge that “listening was ‘a lazy man’s way of reading’” as the luddite’s battle cry.  After all, Barry was referencing the initial response to the Library of Congress’ introduction of “talking books” in 1934.  That battle had long since been won I thought, and so, the antiquarian chest beating looked almost quaint in hindsight.

As I neared the end of the article though, I found philosophy professor, William Irwin quoted in 2009 as admitting that he hid his “audio habit” from colleagues as well as his more judgmental students for fear that they would see his taste for audio as a sign of the intellectual end times.  Upon further investigation, I discovered that Irwin wasn’t alone in his fear of social castigation.  Even scholars such as Jessica E. Moyer who specializes in YA reading habits has been occasionally fought skewed data that does not include YA listening habits seeing as how that’s not “real” reading.

It would appear, like some horrible rash, the luddites are not gone.  Nor is this irrational bias against audio in the face of print.  The great irony is that audio was the original story telling format.  Print is the beloved usurper.

Here then lies my question.  This mentality toward audio presentations of print works is so foreign to me that it is difficult to even address the topic.  What about audio technology elicits such hostility?  Surely it can’t be sloth since, by definition, such ire requires energy.  Granted, the pseudo-intellectual appeal of having something to thumb one’s nose at knows no bounds, but why has the target of this thumbing taken this particular shape?  And is there some aspect of this discussion that should worry Arkana as we, its editorial staff, move forward in adding audio to our website?

There are legitimate discussions to be had about the impact of this.  Our choices as an editorial staff affect what literature is given a platform, what art reaches the population, and thus, we choose the face of art.  For a host of reasons–aesthetic, practical, and arbitrary–we decide what issues are important, what messages are worth transmitting.  We are gate keepers of thought.  In the words of narrator Barbara Rosenblat, “A gifted audio recording artist can elevate less-than-stellar writing to someplace[sic] very new.”  Should we choose to elevate less than stellar work?  Does that act, in and of itself, create a new piece of art?  And if so, does that put the editors and narrator in the position of artists themselves?  Technology constantly introduces new questions of ownership, creation, and the nature of art.

Which I personally find extremely fascinating.

Perhaps that is the answer then.  Perhaps the hostility that’s been elicited is not mere elitism and white-male-beard-stroking.  Perhaps it is in fact a reaction to fear and to intellectual sloth.

We continue to tread further into uncharted waters with technology, and it is human nature to fear the unknown.  Those that oppose recordings and view it as not being “real” writing fear being forced to back into the position of the student, of not knowing, and of having to be humble to the questions.  It’s hard work to think and tackle the questions introduced by that which is unfamiliar, but it’s much easier to use the intellect you’ve already got to dismiss it all as fluff.


Originally from Oklahoma, A. É. Coleman writes fiction, comics, and questionable poetry.  He’s a Navy vet who owns cats, plays bagpipes, and listens to science podcasts while pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas.

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