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A Story is a Story is a Story?

dfishervan's picture

Storytelling has played an integral role in human life and for centuries, the printed book served as the primary means for capturing and transmitting these stories. The quest for technological advances also suffuses society and has expanded the number of mediums available for delivering a story. My “Stories of Evolution” course has been examining the evolution of literature and more recently, has focused on the effects of communicating a written story via film. Our class has neglected to discuss the impact of literary technologies such as audio books and ereaders, that preserve all of the word choices of the author in the storytelling experience. My deep interest in the power of words and simultaneous apprehensiveness and intrigue towards the changes wrought by technology inspired me to undertake this project. Audio books and ereaders emerged in the early 1990’s and have since undergone a number of revisions in order to keep up with the ongoing advancements of technology (Fowler and Baca 2010 and Kozloff 1995). The popularity of these devices, especially the ereaders, continues to increase with every update. As with any new technological innovation gaining popularity, the public has grown concerned about the trajectory of ereaders and audiobooks and begun to articulate the significant losses society would suffer if these devices managed to replace the printed book. Of course, to establish the legitimacy and necessity of the ereader and audio book, their advertisers need to emphasize both the similarities they share with the original book as well as the unique advantages they offer. By highlighting these similarities and the positive and negative differences in reading experiences between the printed book and these two mediums, this paper attempts to demonstrate that like biological evolution, ereaders and audio books are exploring new possibilities and providing us with fresh, distinct ways to experience stories. In doing so, this paper also tries to quell society’s fear regarding the loss associated with the growing popularity of these mediums.

            In his piece on audio books, William Irwin traces this fear of loss back to the ancient authors who worried about the threat the written word posed to their oratory tradition of storytelling (Irwin 2009). To debase this fear, Irwin notes that “the medium is not always the message” (Irwin 2009). According to Irwin and several other authors and bloggers, audio books and ereaders still retain the story’s content, it’s ideas, themes, and meaning and thus, since these essential elements are preserved, there is no need to panic about any significant loss if these technologies did eclipse print books. One blogger writes that regardless of his/her choice of print book or ebook, “it’s still the same ideas that run around in my mind and stimulate my thoughts” (in Walsh 2010). Irwin emphasizes the lack of fundamental differences between audio books and print books by mentioning his ability to effortlessly transition between the two mediums when reading/listening to the same book and by claiming that the same reasons that motivate a person to read a book act as a motivator for listening to a book (Irwin 2009). Likewise, users of ereaders complimented the devices by remarking that reading their ereaders felt like reading a “real book” and that the period of adjustment was minimal (Clark et al. 2008). Reading comprehension is another area which advertisers for ereaders and audio books hope to claim as differing little between their devices and the printed book. While Irwin acknowledges that there are subtle distinctions in the way the brain comprehends an audio book versus a print book, he believes from the limited data available, that this difference in mechanism does not severely impact overall reading comprehension (Irwin 2009). It is evident from the varying results that I came across on the ereader’s effect on reading comprehension that more studies need to be conducted before a formal conclusion can be drawn.

            Of course, the laws of evolution dictate that a new thing which merely mimics something that already exists will not necessarily succeed in a world with limited resources. Consequently, ereaders and audio books must offer some advantages that differentiate them from the original print book. These advantages extend beyond the increased portability of stories offered by the two technologies. Both proponents of ereaders and audio books believe that these technologies offer a more engaging reading experience than print books. While Irwin admits that reading a print book involves some level of performance, he describes the elements of performance introduced to the reading experience by audio books as unique and richer (Irwin 2009). This performance element helps generate a connection between the reader and narrator which the impersonal pages of a print book fail to create and aids the reader in better picturing the story’s world which might otherwise escape him/her (Kozloff 1995). For example, James Shockoff, an author of an article on audio books, gave up on the print version of “The Pillars of Earth” after several failed attempts but, the narrator of the audio book revived the words of the dense novel, helped him in imagining the story’s world, and allowed him to enjoy the novel (Shokoff 2001). Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive who oversaw the creation of the Kindle ereader, makes the same claim for ereaders, stating that “everything is about getting the device to disappear so that you can enter the author's world” (in Fowler and Baca 2010). Critics of ereaders feel that the hypertext linking dispersed throughout ebook text and easy internet access available on most ereaders fosters a more interactive and engaging reading experience (Stone 2008).

            Numerous critics, including myself, believe that these features of ereaders and audio books which enhance the reader’s engagement alter the content of the book. One blogger mentioned that the ability to click on unknown words in an ereader’s text and instantly uncover their meaning “afforded her a deeper understanding of the text” (Casida 2011). Although I do not have much experience with ereaders, from reading articles online and papers on Serendip, I can attest that having access to the internet while reading significantly impacts my perception of a story’s content. For instance, while researching for this paper, I came across the saying “the message is the medium” in Irwin’s paper which I did not fully comprehend. Had I been reading a print version of the article, I most likely would have glossed over the quote. However, as I was reading it online, I simply opened up another tab and spent a few minutes exploring this saying further, a gesture which influenced my interpretation of Irwin’s article. As audio books allow one to “read” while performing mundane tasks such as cleaning and driving, the actions one engages in while listening to an audio book can affect the way one interprets the content of a book. Driving while listening to an audio book can create “a sensation of driving through the story that may be unique in the history of narrative” (Kozloff 1995). Since I have listened to a few audio books as a passenger during long car rides, I can confirm that the movement that occurs while listening to an audio book seeps into one’s mind and enhances the reading experience. Normally when I read a print book, I listen to music in order to help shut out other distracting noises and as a result, I subconsciously form musical and lyrical association with certain parts of the book. However, when listening to an audio book, I link points in the plot with visual images that correspond to the activity I am simultaneously completing. This visual imagery influences my attitudes and understanding of the book.

            Like biological evolution, the evolution of reading involves trade offs. The advantageous features of ereaders and audio books also appear to have detrimental effects in certain circumstances. The unique performance elements incorporated in audio books present readers with another component for critique. In some cases, the actual words and plotline of the book cannot salvage a weak narration in the audio book version (Shokoff 2001). Other critics of audio books fear that by providing a fixed interpretation of the book, the performance of the narrator in the audio book constrains and negatively influences the listener’s analysis of the passage (Kozloff 1995). The ability to multitask while listening to an audio book also could detract from the reader’s engagement with the story. Some fear that the same hyperlinks dispersed throughout the text in ereaders that increase the interactive nature of reading, will actually discourage the “absorbed and reflective mode that characterizes literacy reading” (Liu 2005). Reading a printed novel is traditionally very linear in that one can read straight through without frequently stopping to reference back to indexes or information displayed on other pages ((Liu 2005). The hyperlinks and internet access available on the ereader fragment the reading experience and potentially interrupt the analytical process by encouraging readers to pause and click on the links which direct his/her attention from the novel to outside sources (Liu 2005).

Several ereader and audio book users found that these two technologies hindered their ability to spatially locate the desired information in a book. Studies show that people find it easier to relocate a select passage when reading a print book as opposed to an ereader since readers were better able to picture the text’s spatial location in their head and gauge their physical place in the novel (MacFadyen 2011). Audio book listeners also struggle to spatially orient themselves in the story. Unlike when reading print books, an audio book user cannot see the book’s last page approaching. Irwin describes one particular experience where the audio book included an instrumental clip which he thought signaled the end of the novel but, it actually marked the end of one section of the book (Irwin 2009). As a result, Irwin prematurely began analyzing the book as a whole without having actually finished the book (Irwin 2009). In comparison to print books, a few users of ereaders and audio books also indicated that they experienced a loss of navigational freedom. When reading a print book, one can easily flip back or skip ahead but, this is not the case for ereaders and audio books which require more effort to maneuver the digital pages and precisely rewind/fast-forward (MacFadyen 2011 and Kozloff 1995).

When it comes to answering whether or not these two technologies will replace the print book, a question which almost every piece consulted for this paper comments on, the answer seems to be the same regardless if one emphasizes the similarities or differences of these devices with the print book. If one chooses to focus on the similarities between these electronic mediums and the print book, he/she should not fear the replacement of print books by the ereader or audio book. A new form which simply mirrors the already existing form does not provide natural selection with a variation to act on to help the new form out compete the original form. Even if audio books or ereaders managed to replace the print book, people who focus on the similarities between these mediums should be comforted by Irwin’s claim that the fundamental meaning of a print book will be preserved in these electronic devices. Those critics who highlight the differences between these reading mediums should also not worry about a take over by the audio book or ereader. Although ereaders and audio books offer numerous advantages that allow these devices to surpass the print book in certain areas, there are still disadvantages when it comes to using these technologies instead of a print book. As long as these deficiencies exist in the two technologies, there will be room in the evolutionary landscape for print books. I believe the positive and negative differences in reading experiences offered by audio books, ereaders, and print books allow all three literary mediums to coexist in separate niches. Ultimately, examining these literary mediums in this light helps to reinforce the universal applications of biological evolution to other fields.


I now invite you to reflect on your own reading preferences by participating in this brief survey which inquires about your preferred reading medium:


Anne Dalke's picture

Evolving reading practice


you have in me a VERY interested (internet, audiobook, printed book) reader of this text. One of the other courses I teach regularly for the English Department is called Literary Kinds: Thinking Through Genre. Last time 'round, we began w/ blogs, but reading your project here I've decided that next spring we should begin w/ your survey of student reading practices (I looked @ it, btw, but didn't take it, since it was entitled "student survey"-- but one suggested revision would be to offer your respondents the opportunity to check all the media they use. Insisting that they have a single preference may well not speak to the condition of most of us; it certainly does not speak to mine. I use many different media for many different purposes; I engage in many different sorts of reading).

What seems to me of most value in your project is its rich bibliography (though I very much appreciated the active links throughout the essay, and plan to read a number of them thoroughly, I would also have appreciated a conventional Works Cited list @ the end, w/ publication info, etc. ). That bibliography enables you to survey an expanded range of reading practices; I was especially intrigued by the concepts of  "spatial orientation" and "navigational freedom" as terms to describe different ways we might read. I was interested, too, in the questions you raise about the degree to which audio and ebooks "constrain and influence" the listener's response; I would like to think more about the ways in which they constitute an additional layer of interpretation. Along these lines, you might find of interest the work of Katherine Hayles, a literary scholar whose essays on "How We Read" and "How We Think" were @ the center of my other course this semester, on information and technology; see the second half of the course notes for Head Games and Taking Information Seriously for a summary of her ideas.

I am certain that I will go on thinking about the questions you raise here. If you'd like to do this also, one arena for discussion might be just how robust the analogy to biological evolution is for this particular niche. You make some general gestures in this direction, saying that a "new form which simply mirrors the already existing form does not provide natural selection with a variation to act on to help the new form out compete the original form," and that "examining these literary mediums in this light helps to reinforce the universal applications of biological evolution to other fields." Where does the analogy and the application break down? In what way is the "evolutionary landscape" you've described not a "natural" one?