Mark Lawson in the Guardian on audio books:
I have to confess that I am a fan of audio books. For some reason, I always feel that I am admitting to some sort of failure when I say that I like them. There is definitely a presumption of illiteracy, or at least dyslexia, in fans of the format. This article furthers that prejudice.
Mark Lawson’s argument is a little rambling. He concedes that the blind and motorway drivers have an excuse (as if they need one) but says that everyone else is missing out because audio books are often abridged. The same could be said of those who indulge in printed abridged texts. Stick to the subject in hand!
After that, he complains that audio books are not the format intended by the author. A recorded reading of ‘The Iliad’ is fine, as this is comparable to the original format, but novels were meant to be read. This may be true. However, many novels were originally serialised. If I read a single volume edition of ‘War and Peace’ over a few weeks rather than in instalments over the course of years, am I not missing out on the original format?
The idea that audio books are going to infantilise the general populace is a little bit daft as well. Imagine three people. The first has just read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in print. Another has just listened to a reading. The last has never heard of the book. Is the second person really more childish than the first? Is he not in a little better educated in a narrow sense than the third? Do audio books reduce the number of people reading books in print or increase the number of people coming into contact with literature? Is the set of people who choose between listening to an audio book and not experiencing the book at all much greater than the group who choose between print and tape?
Having made myself appear a little childish by admitting to listening to audio books, I think that I should be allowed a little bit of boasting. I do regularly read via the visual characters method. I can do it in English, French, Spanish and, increasingly, Korean.
Korean has the most wonderful writing system that I have come across, called hangeul. King Sejeong the Great, the system’s inventor, is a national hero. His portrait graces the 10,000 Won note (this highest value bill in the country). In a recent show-and-tell class at the school where I work in Korea, two of the eight students in the class talked about him as the person they respected the most. The characters are very easy to learn (I picked up most of the alphabet reading the names of subway stations whilst riding the metro around Seoul) and spelling and pronunciation is regular.
Sejong saw the need for the script because previously Koreans had used Chinese characters with approximately equivalent sounds to write things down. This system was highly unsatisfactory and made reading an exclusive practice for a privileged elite. Sejong increase literacy enormously with the new simpler system. Of course, the privileged elite were not too pleased that the skill that set them apart from the great unwashed was now commonplace. They ridiculed the system, calling it a system for children and illiterates. A later king even banned it. It was not until centuries later, at the start of the last century, that official documents were written using hangeul.
Whether modern day snobbery about audio books has much in common with the historical opponents of hangeul is a moot point. That people should concern themselves about the ways that others choose to entertain themselves has always perplexed me. That people use their chosen format for their own consumption of literature to justify their feelings of superiority is mind-boggling. Is the ability to read characters on a page really impressive to any adult?