Do you prefer your words aloud or in silence?

Deep down, I prefer words on the page and I think I always have. It’s true that when I was small I had a very soft spot for some of my Roald Dahl audio books, but as my reading skills progressed, so did my desire to recreate the voices for myself – internally that is. I’ve not listened to a book on tape in years and years now, and I’ve got no desire to. What I have experienced quite a few of recently however, are literary readings.

The Death og Bunny Munro book cover Nick cave I made myself a promise that this year I’d make a concerted effort to turn up to readings and literary nights and, true to my word, I’ve been to quite a few. From the amateur to the professional – with Nick Cave’s spot at Canongate’s Irregular being a particular highlight – I’ve sat quietly and respectfully (unlike some audience members but that’s a different moan), with a drink in hand and ears open and ready.

The problem is that I find it very, very hard to concentrate on someone telling me a story. Short, punchy poetry I can usually follow, but as soon as I start trying to engage with a wall of prose my mind wanders horribly – even when the readers are very talented and the work something I know I’d likely enjoy in the privacy of my own room. When I realise I’m doing it, I’ll give a little guilty shake and focus on the front again, but it doesn’t normally take long for me to fail again. Sometimes I also find myself sending sneaky looks around the room to try and see how many of the other listeners are getting decidedly glassy eyed too.

Nights like these are some of the very few times authors get the chance to see a physical reaction to their words and I think they are invaluable for both writers and readers, but it does all make me wonder whether the words of novels or long pieces of prose are actually better off on paper. That the silent communication between the author and reader – the moments of interpretations, even the misreadings that forever skew the author’s intentions – is one of the most valuable aspects of novels, and something not so easily found in many other art forms.

Readings allow you to understand the author’s emphasis and the motivations that drive them wonderfully – just listen to find which words are stressed, which sentences glossed over – but do they dampen the joy of discovery? Maybe only for me. But I’d love to know how other people feel about listening to their favourite authors read or their opinions on readings in general. Have I looked over a vital point? Or am I just missing a trick?

6 thoughts on “Do you prefer your words aloud or in silence?

  1. I went to see Bret Easton Ellis earlier this week and he said the same thing – that he hates reading aloud, because reading prose is a personal, inner thing. He only read for five minutes.

    I’ve been at many a reading where my attention drifted, but if the reader’s really committed, it can enhance the piece. Sebastian Barry is a great reader, as is short story writer Justin Taylor – great comic timing.


    • Oh I’m jealous, that’s someone I’d be interested to see.

      I’ll look out for those guys too, incase they are reading nearby anytime – cheers for the suggestions!

      I suppose it depends on the genre as well as the caliber of the reader, you mentioning comic timing reminded me how much easier I find it to stay engaged with amusing pieces.


  2. Ok, fist of all, I have to admit that I’m still pretty jealous about that Nick Cave incident 🙂
    Personally, I prefer silent words, I’ve never been a fan of audio books, I enjoy hearing the words inside my head. And it doesn’t help that I have a very short attention span, while I read I can concentrate because my eyes are on the page but when I’m being read to, I can easily drift away and lose track.
    If there is a trick though, I’d love to know! 🙂


    • I guess I feel the same way about audiobook as I do cinematic versions of books, that the character is never quite the way imagined them – or sometimes – wanted them to be!

      I do like readings in general though, maybe we just need to practice a ‘I’m not drifting away, honest’ expression.


  3. I guess we also have to account for how people who are great storytellers on the page aren’t necessarily engaging readers. It’s like getting a TV show writer to also act in their show when they’re not a great actor.

    I know if I had to read one of my stories aloud I’d stumble and mumble and supremely fuck it up, no matter how amazing it is on the page. Which it is 😉


    • Of course it is 🙂

      Yeah, I get nervous and stumble, but practice surely helps, if not makes perfect. It’s a pretty big deal though, giving readings. i wonder if anyone has set up a coaching class for nervous writers…


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