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Ears love reading in a different way

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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

Books spoke to my ears long before they ever spoke to my eyes. My earliest memories are of being read to by my mother and, more often, by my dad. His deep, slow drawl could make the characters of "Kidnapped" and "Treasure Island" sound like neighbors and cousins.

Even after I could read the words for myself, I still loved being read to. Dad — especially after he was fortified with more than a bit of bourbon and branch — would curl up with me on the sagging green couch in his favorite corner and reach for a well-thumbed volume, often the stories and poetry of other experienced drinking men. Robert Burns. O. Henry. Ernest Hemingway.

Oh, and especially Rudyard Kipling. As a veteran of the war in the South Pacific, Dad considered Kipling a kindred spirit and was drawn particularly to the poet's "Barrack-Room Ballads."

"O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' ‘Tommy, go away';

"But it's ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,' when the band begins to play ..."

While not a well-schooled man, my father nonetheless developed his own love for the sound of words, instilling that love in me, where it thrives to this day.

In other words, my old man would have loved audiobooks.

I think.

Actually, though, I'm not positive about that, because reading by ear is an acquired talent. I had to teach myself to enjoy books that weren't in my hands and eyes, books that arrived by ear.

I used the technology of the iPod to train my ears to see better.

Audiobooks came into our lives in a big way in the 1980s, the same decade when multitasking became the buzzword du jour. Suddenly, you could take your book with you as you drove to work, hit the gym, walked in the woods, dozed on the beach, flew across the country. "Books on tape" is what we called them, using a term that subliminally also suggested the fragility of the medium. Serious readers, it implied, would continue to want something a little more substantial than tape.

Consequentially, much of the early audiobook market was dominated, not by serious literature, but by the latest romance novels, mysteries and westerns. In other words, coming to tape near you were what we usually thought of as "airport novels."

That began to change rapidly in the new millennium as spoken word books went from analog tape to digital downloads. When Steve Jobs introduced Apple's iPod in 2001, he was thinking music. However, it took only a few months for the first short stories and novels to pop up. By the time Apple rolled out its iTunes Store in 2003, books were soaring as second only to music in terms of what we were listening to through our earbuds.

Today, hardly a new book is published in print without a companion audio version for iPod, iPhone, iPad, Android, Galaxy and all the other phones and tablets. 

But can listening be a quality reading experience?

I think so, but I wasn't always so convinced. Multitasking is not a word — or a concept — that I love. I think many of us delude ourselves when we think that our busy-ness has allowed us to evolve into creatures capable of giving full attention to several activities at the same time. I believe that in reality we have lowered our standards, settling for less than first-rate results on many projects simply to make up for the fact that we were no longer giving them focused, in-depth attention. The fact of the matter is that most of us find our minds wandering when we are read to. And that was a problem I wanted to tackle.

A few winters ago, I set out to train myself to pay better attention to books I was listening to. I had just discovered the iTune U section of the iTunes Store, an area that provides college lectures and related material from universities all around the world. Among the items suddenly online were about 100 classic (public domain) books presented as audiobooks that were recorded by volunteers. There were novels by Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, satires by Jonathan Swift and Voltaire and much more.

Since the price was right — free for the downloading! — I decided to pick a book I was already familiar with (I choose Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court") and used it to see how well I could teach myself to stay focused on the text.

I quickly learned there had been a great improvement in the technology for listening. When I first tried audiobooks back in the ‘80s, I was stuck with cassette tapes, which were frustrating when my mind wandered; the rewind function of cassette tapes was awkward and sloppy. By contrast, the new downloadable books play on digital devices that are quite precise, offering a "back-30-seconds" function. A tap or two takes you right back to where your thoughts drifted away from the text.

All that winter, I practiced with free books I downloaded from iTunes U, taking them with me on walks, on drives and when I was doing chores. And, as with any other exercise, the more I worked with it, the better I became at focusing my attention on an ear-driven story.

The only downside was that the volunteer readers in my growing library of free audio were not consistent. Some were great readers, with big, warm voices; others, bless their hearts, were un-listenable. Soon I was eager to reach out for better performers. 

By summer I had trained my listening skill enough to invest in some quality audio. I signed up for Audible.com, a subsidiary of Amazon, which offers more than a million hours of downloadable programming and more than 100,000 titles from 1,200 different providers. For $14.95 a month, I now download a book a month, and I can choose from almost any of the latest releases from major publishers, as well as a healthy backlog of older books. Most are read by professional storytellers who make the books even more vivid in my imagination.

Have I given up reading by eye? 

Of course not. In fact, I sometimes want to have both a printed copy and an audio copy of a good book.

Learning to hone my listening skills simply has enabled me to read more and more often.