By Kevin Currie-Knight
Something interesting happened in 2020 that changed my view of the importance of books and snobbish attitudes about their importance. I found out that an author I admire, Jon Ronson, had published two works that I didn’t know about: The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August.
Ronson is the type of author whose work I automatically buy the minute I hear of it because I find it so enjoyable. So I looked in vain for new books Ronson had produced. Frustrated, I did a general internet search for those titles, without the word ‘book’ in the search, and that did the trick. These were in fact new works. However, they were not books but podcasts. It required a subscription to an audiobook service, but I procured them and, like Ronson’s other works, I eagerly took them in.
Here’s why this situation changed my view about reading’s importance. Up until this point – aside from a few early documentary films – Ronson worked primarily in the printed word, which is where he experienced his success. These newer works were deliberately done as podcasts. [He’s since produced another: the excellent Things Fell Apart.] To make things even stranger, these new works were indistinguishable in substance from Ronson’s general style of quirky journalistic writing. They consisted of him reading the same types of prose he would normally have written, where the only difference was that quotes from interview subjects were now audio excerpts from those subjects.
If works like this can be – and are now willingly produced as – podcasts, what does that say for the cultural importance of book reading? This was and is interesting to me, particularly because I’m a professor working in Education, and a former special educator who worked with many students for whom reading was either a challenge or an impossibility. In fact, when I left high school teaching, I was in the midst of trying to convince my school district to make heavier use of then-cutting-edge Amazon Kindle readers, which had large-print and text-to-speech capabilities that I knew could help my students.
As any linguist or historian of language will tell us, writing is a new technology compared with speech. And the dominance of the written word is as recent as the printing press and subsequent efficiencies that have reduced the cost – and increasing the availability – of books.
I confess not to know the details of this history, but in this process, we gradually created a cultural snobbery around books, and it hasn’t gone away. My in-laws – one of them a former schoolteacher – have a sign in their library that says, “Today’s readers, tomorrow’s leaders.” (I suspect it once hung in the schoolteacher’s classroom.) The implication is either that reading is a sign of, and requires, intellect, or that it is the most reliable way to absorb the type of information that makes for leadership.
But can we really say that in the age where authors like Jon Ronson or Malcolm Gladwell are turning their attention to audio formats over written ones? Of course, I know that Ronson and Gladwell aren’t exactly Darwin or Locke. But neither are most of the authors that schools regularly celebrate kids for reading, like Shel Silverstein or Judy Blume. “Today’s Readers, Tomorrow’s Leaders,” places its emphasis – as schools and the wider culture generally do – on the medium, at least as much as the content in the pages.
Yet, reading is in a medium, and like all media, we can separate, at least to some degree, the medium from the content. That’s what discovering Jon Ronson’s podcasts helped me to understand. They easily could have been written as books, and conversely, the audiobook versions of his books sound almost identical to his podcasts. The medium is different, but the content is virtually identical. And let’s remember, one of those venerated authors we regularly read in school – William Shakespeare – wrote plays that were never intended to be encountered primarily on printed pages. Watching and reading a play are more divergent experiences than reading or listening to a Jon Ronson story. But to some important degree, the same content can be conveyed through different media, and it is the content, not the medium, that seems of primary importance.
When people ask me whether reading is as important in today’s world as it was in the past, I still answer with a resounding “yes!” If anything, we live in a world more saturated with written text than at any previous point in human history. With the rise of texting and instant messaging (what John McWhorter calls “fingered speech”), kids and adults now write out conversations that previous generations would have spoken. The internet and the ubiquity of devices to access it means that the written word is everywhere.
But that same internet and those same devices also mean that other ways of conveying ideas are also everywhere. Audiobook sales are surging, and factors including the decreased costs of production mean that more books are available in audio formats than ever before. Podcasting has become its own industry, and as a subscriber to a podcast service, I listen to scores of podcasts that do exactly what Ronson’s did: take a narrative that could have been written and speak it out.
I have no desire to kill books. If you looked around the room in which I’m writing this, it would be obvious how much I love them. And surely, books and other printed formats can do things audio formats can’t. First, book reading is silent, so I can read a book anywhere [all other things being equal]. Also, while books are linear, it is quite easier to jump around in them – going back to rehearse a passage or forward to check a footnote – than with audio formats. While some audiobook players have “highlight” features where you can excerpt a passage for later reference, annotations are easier to make with print than audio. Lastly, because print reading is a visual medium that requires undivided attention, complex texts (and sentence structures) are often easier to read than listen to. (For instance, there is an audiobook version of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; but were you thinking about consuming it, I’d quote Kant himself: ought implies can.”)
For all the benefits of reading, there are also a number of benefits of listening. Oral communication, remember, has been around far longer than print. Kids learn to speak before they learn to read. All of this is because speech is the more natural medium for us. Reading involves a complex fusion of many different activities: recognizing and organizing letters; forming those into phonemes; recognizing the strings as words; comprehending strings of words as something more than strings of words; etc. This is why reading disabilities are so common: if one of those parts fails, you can’t read [either at all or without serious support]. If anyone still doubts how much more brain space reading requires over hearing, have a few beers or puffs of cannabis and read; now listen to a podcast. I have no doubt which one will be harder.
Because of this, I can listen to an audiobook or podcast while on a treadmill or performing some other rote activity. There are also books that I think translate better in audio. Now that I’ve listened to Jon Ronson’s podcasts, I am more likely to “read” his books in audio format. And the reverse of the Kant audiobook (yuck!) is reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I tried the print version, but because she is a master at dialogue written phonetically in a Floridian black dialect, the audio version made for a richer experience that I suspect is closer to what she intended.  Audio can convey inflection in a way the written word can’t (except highly imperfectly through punctuation, a reader’s imagination, and now emoji). 
I’ll say again that I am not against books. I am against the over-appreciation of books as some type of intrinsically superior activity, and the under-appreciation of audio as a means of conveyance. Today’s readers might be tomorrow’s leaders, but we live in a society both richer than ever with text and alternatives to it. It has never been more important to be text-literate, but it has rarely been easier to be text-illiterate, as many ways as there are to receive information.
“Today’s readers, tomorrow’s leaders” should be loosened significantly. I’m not sure how to do it while keeping the cute rhyme scheme, but here’s a pass at my broader version: “Today’s info-vores, tomorrow’s overlords.”
 For a different reason, I prefer consuming James Baldwin’s essays in audio format. They are written in beautiful and sometimes winding sentences, but always with a certain poetry that I find is richer to my ear than my eyes. When I read them, I translate them to audio in my mind anyway. Why not cut out the middleman?
 On a related note, I find that I enjoy reading philosophers and other intellectuals most when reading lectures they’ve given. Even if the lectures were written, the fact that they were written to be given as speeches seems to change what they wrote, usually to a simpler format that is easier for ears to follow.