Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Library: Helen Benedict's Reading Experiment

Reader:  Helen Benedict
Location:  Medusa, New York, and New York City.
Collection size:  No idea.  Masses.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Favorite book from childhood:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Guilty pleasure book:  Not much guilt here, but Persuasion by Jane Austen.

I’ve been conducting an eccentric experiment these past few months, reading three books at once in three different formats: a real book, an e-book, and an audiobook.  I wanted to find out which I remembered best, and why.

Now, I have to say right off there’s nothing scientific about this.  I wasn’t reading the same book in all three formats, and my sample was a statistically ridiculous size of one.  So whether my conclusions have more to do with the quality of a book or its format is hard to say.  But, like any essayist, I have formed my opinions regardless, and fully expect others to wildly disagree.

I began with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rohinton Mistry, and Penelope Fitzgerald, a eclectic mix from the start.  I took in Love in the Time of Cholera by ear, read Such a Long Journey on my Kindle, and soaked up The Blue Flower from old-fashioned paper.

Hmm, I thought as Mistry’s book quickly disappeared from my mind, the voice of the actor who read Garcia Marquez echoed insistently in my ear, and Fitzerald’s stunning prose mesmerized me.  Something’s happening here.

Next, I moved on to Cara Hoffman’s wonderful new novel, Be Safe, I Love You on paper, listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch through my earphones, and took in Phil Klay’s collection of war stories, Redeployment, via Kindle.

This time it was actor David Pittu’s voice reading Tartt that echoed in my head (he is an excellent reader), but it was Hoffman’s story that stuck.  I had to keep rereading Klay to remember where he’d said what, even though his stories are powerful.  Why can’t I remember them properly, I wondered?  Is my brain scrambled?  (I had to reread the book in solid form to take it in.)

On I went, charging through ten more novels.  In audio, I took in Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  In actual book form I read The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, and reread Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  On Kindle, I drank down White Fang by Jack London (for research purposes–don’t ask) and–oh, I can’t remember.  I think you can see where this is going.

Conclusion: E-books are the worst.  I don’t own an iPad, so can’t speak to whether that’s any better, but reading on a little gray slab is like reading a shrunken photograph of a manuscript, each page blowing into the wind the minute you finish it.  Without actual pages, the heft of a book, the sense of how much you’ve read and how much is left (my Kindle doesn’t even have page numbers), or the book’s cover, the experience is more like dreaming a book than reading it.  The words go in one eye, out the other, with nothing to hold them down.  And when you’re done, all that’s left is a tiny gray icon on the screen, nothing really but a blob.

Exacerbating all this is Amazon’s idiotic decision to make its e-books open on Chapter One.  To see anything that comes before–the cover, dedication, epigraph, or prose (prologues sometimes come up first, but not always)–you have to know to deliberately scroll backwards to the cover.  If you don’t know this, you’re reading a chopped-up book from the start.

No, reading on Kindle is like licking the drips of an ice cream cone and never getting to eat it.  Frustrating and forgettable.

Now for audio.  In my experiment, I found that listening to a book sticks much better than reading it on that horrid slab.  For one thing, listening is much slower.  A book I could read to myself in two hours takes at least five to read aloud.  The good side of this is that it forced me to dwell on the book slowly.  If my mind wandered, I could rewind and listen again.

The bad side, though, is that there was someone standing between the book and me: the actor.  I realized this when I listened to Meryl Streep reading The Testament of Mary.  Streep read it so beautifully that I caught myself listening to her voice more than the text.  Then I realized something dreadful: my favorite audiobooks were not the best books but those that had been read the best.  I had fallen in love with the actor’s voices, not the author’s writing.  And conversely, I had stopped listening to books because they were read badly, not because they were bad books.  Oops.

And, as with Kindle, audiobooks are made of air.  Once you’ve finished listening, all that’s left is a tiny square the size of a postage stamp sitting forlornly on your electronic gewgaw.  Virtually invisible.

Now to the actual book, bless it.  I don’t have to tell anyone what it’s like to read an actual book.  I’ll save that for upcoming generations, who will probably need to be told what it’s like to read a paper book the way we need to be told what it was like to travel by horse and carriage.  But meanwhile–and here, at last, I come to the subject of libraries–a book is by far the easiest to remember simply because it exists.  It sits there on a table or a shelf, dressed in its colorful cover, and every time we glance at it, it says, “Hey, remember me?  Remember those hours we spent together?  Remember the stories I told you?”  And we do, whether consciously or not.

Indeed, I’d posit that every time we walk past a book and see it out of the corner of our eye, it reminds us of its contents, if only subliminally.  What’s more, it does that for years–even for our whole lives–whereas those poor disappearing audio and e-books have no way to remind us of themselves even the day after we finish them, let alone forever.

So now when I’m done with a real book and put it on a real shelf of my real library, I stand looking at it, along with all its brothers and sisters, with new appreciation.  For I’ve learned that a library isn’t simply a collection of books.  It’s a vast and invaluable mnemonic.

Helen Benedict is the author of six novels and five books of nonfiction.  Her latest novel, Sand Queen, set in the Iraq War, is culled from real life stories of female soldiers and Iraqis.  Her books Sand Queen and The Lonely Soldier, along with her articles about the sexual assault of women in the military, inspired the award-winning documentary, The Invisible War.  Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Women's Review of Books, and many other newspapers and magazines.  She is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.  Click here to visit her website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.


  1. Thank you for the lovely essay, Helen. I love your little research project -- and agree with you on the superiority of paper -- but I would propose one other approach: read on both paper and audiobook. When I find a book really engaging I get the audio book as well. That way I can take it with me to the gym and listen in the car. As to the slow pace of many of the readers, I just turn up the speed, sometimes reading at 2 or 3 times the normal pace. It might sound like chipmunks, but the story comes through. This combo plan of voice and paper suits me best. That way, when I'm done, I still have a book to put on the shelf -- and many nice memories of the reading/listening experience.

  2. What a great piece. I completely agree about the experience of reading on a kindle--inferior in every way to an actual book. The kindle is for second tier books you're pretty sure you'll never read again & you're only reading for...whatever inferior reason. If I find myself liking an e-book a lot, I buy the real thing. It's so worth it. I do love your library picture! And I have to say, you must be a very fast reader!

  3. Thank you. This is my favorite kind of essay -- one that confirms something I already believe! I doubt I'll ever fall victim to an e-reader, although I know there are many "smaller" titles I'll never read. Too bad.
    I'm a paper book person, all the way. I do listen to audio books on very long drives. In fact, I listened to a lovely reading of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy not a month ago on a ten-hour drive. I don't remember a word of it.