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A Literary Experiment: Do You See or Hear Your Imagination?

On Wednesday, I wrote on the impact listening to Barber's Adagio for Strings. Then I went to bed.

And I began wondering, where did the impetus for this post come from? Why had I suddenly started thinking of the emotional impact of listening?

Then I remembered that just before my mind, seemingly randomly, wandered to a memory of Barber's Adadio, I had been linking across the blogosphere when I found A Writer Afoot. I scrolled down the page, and read a post describing a walk while listening to Bel Canto, a fine literary novel by Ann Patchett. I read this book last November and loved the beauty of the language.

As I brought the book to mind, I couldn't imagine listening to it rather than reading it. This is inspite of the fact that at this very moment I have Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife playing in my car and have relied on audiobooks to provide entertainment on road trips. But the books I choose for audio play tend to be commercial fiction, mysteries, thrillers, quick pacing... literature lite.

This leads me to consider the different experiences we have with literature. Why does it matter whether we read rather than listen to a particular piece of writing?

If I am tackling a beautiful piece of literature, I prefer reading rather than listening. The experience of reading allows me to savor a particularly moving passage, to see the action in my mind's eye. I find that I appreciate an author's choice of words, the cadence of her language, or the visual imagery of a description, more when I have read it, rather than heard it spoken.

Perhaps it is the intrusion of the reader's voice. When I am reading, I hear my own voice, or the voice of the character. The introduction of the reader's voice cuts off that internal creation and imposes what the producer believes the character should sound like.

And isn't the imagination of, and seamless entering into, the author's created world an essential component of the literary experience?

Well, let's conduct our own Literary Experiment here. Below I have provided an excerpt of Bel Canto's opening page as well as a link to an auditory clip of the same passage. Both were obtained from Ann Patchett's website.

Chapter One

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise. They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, "Brava! Brava!" and the Japanese turned away from them. Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Now, I invite you to listen to the same excerpt, by clicking here.

This link will take you to Ann Patchett's web page for Bel Canto where you will find a link to an audio excerpt of the same passage.

Let me know your thoughts. Was your experience of Bel Canto affected by the method of delivery? Do you have a preference of reading v. listening to books?


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