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April 15, 2016

Reading : On Audio

Prague, Czech Republic. May 2009

In medical school I did a research project on end-of-life care that focused on interviewing patients with terminal illness and asking them about what was most important to them at this phase in their lives. I spoke to several patients with amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurogenerative disorder where people progressively lose function of their muscles.  It's not until you lose function that you realize how many muscles your body requires. Movements that used to take no thought become the center of attention--swallowing, speaking, breathing. The tiny muscles that allow us those annoying and necessary acts of coughing, spitting--they stop working, and people experience a stepwise breaking down of their bodies.

The people I spoke to dealt with this progressive dissolution in different ways--with wit and humor, with a day by day mentality, with devising a new contraption each day to substitute for the loss of human force. One commonality was that despite facing these life changing challenges, none of them had spoken aloud a narration of their experience. When I asked them about what it was like, what they thought about, what they feared leaving behind, what they wanted to leave behind--some of them had thought about it, some hadn't, and none had spoken about it aloud.

I taped the interviews on a tape cassette, burned the files onto CDs, and provided any of the patients who wanted it with a copy of their interview. Months after I finished the project, the wife of one of the patients sent me a letter. In it she wrote about how she had never heard her husband speak about his experience as he did during our interview. She expressed that it was also different sitting with him during the interview, and then hearing it on audio afterwards, sitting alone and processing it as a story. She listened to it again after he died, and she felt sad and grateful to have a record of his voice.

When she wrote me this letter, I had spent so much time reading the transcripts of the interviews and writing my thesis based on the written translation of the taped interviews, that I'd forgotten what it was like to just listen to them.  I went back and listened to some of the interviews. It struck me that 1) it makes me cringe to listen to my own voice, and 2) listening to a narrative adds another dimension that can really change how you experience a story.

This is one of the main reasons I've grown to love listening to audiobooks so much. The extra layer of voice opens a depth of character and narrative that gets me really invested in a book.  I've also listened to/read a greater variety of books as a result, because I get drawn in by the telling of stories that I probably would have passed over in written form. A certain relationship develops because you can really feel the force of the person and people behind a narrative. I tend to laugh more aloud and tear up more when listening to a book than reading it. I've really enjoyed listening to books that I've already read in written form, to experience the story in a new and different way, and it always adds to my absorption of the characters and their lives.

Prague, Czech Republic. May 2009
The easiest way I've found to get audiobooks is through the app Overdrive.  If you have a public library card, the app links you to the library and you can download up to. You can find instructions here for iPhone and Android. As a lifelong reader, I can personally say that it has really added so much to the joy of reading, and open new avenues into hearing people's stories. Whenever I get attached to listening to one, whether because it's very moving or just entertaining, I think about listening to the patients who took time to speak to me and how much weight someone's voice carries. I feel lucky to have opportunities to hear that.


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