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John-Paul Heil
21 Oct 2022

An Ear Towards Community

The convenience of the audiobook comes at a cost of intimacy.

An Ear Towards Community

As we walked around the block on Christmas Eve of 2020, I made the mistake of boasting to my friend the philosopher about my audiobook collection. I purchased an Audible subscription shortly after the start of the pandemic and still wasn’t certain whether listening to an audiobook actually counted as reading one; indeed, I anticipated that my interlocutor on that frosty walk would take issue with exactly this point. 

Instead, he told me he really enjoyed listening to books himself, that he and his wife read to each other before going to sleep, an activity which he thought had deepened their relationship. But this didn’t mean he enjoyed listening to audiobooks. Instead, he argued that audiobooks were disordered, not because listening to the recitation of a book was less real than reading it on the page – the former often revealed certain turns of phrase and insightful passages which might be otherwise skimmed past, and the way a person read a book told you something about them through what they emphasized and their natural cadence and comfortability in telling a story – but because audiobooks were alienating. “To listen to someone read you a story is an act of intimacy,” he said. “Who would want a total stranger to read you your favorite book?”

I don’t entirely agree with my friend, but he had a point: audiobooks have a way of alienating us from reality. Audiobooks can reduce the physical circumstances around us to background noise and can encourage a certain aloofness towards reading that the commitment to sit down with one’s entire body to read a book precludes. In other words, audiobooks can alienate us from space. The tradeoff is that audiobooks are portable and convenient. Our capability to read widely increases drastically when we don’t have to carry a library, book, or e-reader around with us.

Audiobooks can also alienate us from time. To read a physical book requires a presence of mind and a dedication of time from your day. There can be little sense of surrender, gratuity, or true leisure when one listens to an audiobook; instead, it becomes something to fit into the nooks and crannies of our day, something to stave off the boredom of a subway commute or a long drive, as easy to start and stop as putting in or taking out earbuds. This reduces the fundamentally contemplative nature of reading: like looking at a good painting, reading a good book means placing yourself in front of a piece of art and allowing it the time to speak to your soul, to reveal something true about the nature of what is. But this too has a tradeoff, as audiobooks make the efficient acquisition of information much easier than reading books physically. We can accumulate knowledge more quickly when we can convert otherwise “wasted” time in our day, moving between activities, into productivity.

In separating us from time and reality, audiobooks can lead us to a transhumanistic mindset. Defining transhumanism is challenging, as the movement seeks to challenge the way we define human beings and their flourishing. According to the nonprofit Humanity+, which describes itself as “a primary advocate for positive transhumanist values,” transhumanism is an “intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” 

Transhumanity is a middle stage (“transitional human”) between human beings as they are now and “posthumans,” who will be “as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates.” A key feature of posthumanity is control over all facets of one’s being – not only the physical aspects, but the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual as well. Humanity+ suggests that posthumans, in addition to casting off the shackles of age, will “be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things” and, most pertinently, will “have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity.” 

At its core, transhumanism is about the maximization of human agency via the subordination of our natural limitations – especially our bodies (our physical limits) and our deaths (our temporal limits) – to our wills. A transhumanist mindset assumes humans are inherently malleable and, in all ways, self-determined, that we can not only improve upon our perceived natural defects but also exceed the natural boundaries of our capabilities. Its central anthropological tenet is that the end of the human person is whatever that person decides it should be. Its philosophical underpinnings call for direct action: “The changes required to make us posthuman are too profound to be achievable by merely altering some aspect of psychological theory or the way we think about ourselves. Radical technological modifications to our brains and bodies are needed.”

While it might seem extreme to class audiobooks as transhumanist, Humanity+ emphasizes that any technology that makes humans “better than well” via the augmentation of our natural faculties already tends towards a transhumanistic end. Originally conceived of as an aid for the blind and visually impaired, audiobooks became accessible to and common among abled consumers thanks to technological advancement over the course of the last century, especially the proliferation of cassette and CD players in automobiles. Audiobooks’ historical development aligns closely with the transhumanistic arc of transforming prosthetic correctives of natural impairments into augmentations of healthy human faculties. Now audiobooks are a growing commodity: the Audio Publishers Association’s recent annual survey posted the industry’s tenth straight year of double-digit growth and a twenty-five percent increase in revenue from 2021 to 2022, with sixty-one percent of surveyed parents reporting that their children listen to audiobooks.

How we approach reading reveals the way we think about the human person, and vice-versa. Since reading is at heart a practice by which we strive to know more about reality and, in its most pure form, to become more wise, it is a fundamentally human action, one through which we bring into fuller being our natures as rational animals. Transhumanism is an ideology and movement with deeply rooted philosophical flaws, especially its adoption of a totalizing technocratic paradigm which reduces human beings to pieces of technology, oriented towards efficient ends, whose essential qualities like embodiment and mortality are changeable.

To assume that human nature is malleable is to reject the gratuitousness of our existence – that our lives are gifts freely given, valuable in and of themselves – and repudiates any sense of human dignity beyond how quickly we can produce things. A robust view of human dignity recognizes that we are inherently non-efficient, that each person is worthy of love simply because he or she exists; by extent, the most human actions we perform are the ones which do not have primarily functional ends but are ends in themselves. This means that reading, by virtue of being an essentially human act, finds its greatest fulfillment when it is undertaken as a non-efficient practice, valuable as its own end. Reading, approached in this way, affirms human wellbeing authentically, enriching our existence through the leisure it provides without reducing readers or the act itself to the distinctly modern oxymorons of “intellectual laborers” or “intellectual work.” 

How then can audiobooks be read non-efficiently rather than technocratically, humanly rather than … transhumanly? Certainly, audiobooks should not be done away with; their growing popularity speaks to the intrinsic appeal to the human heart of hearing stories and wisdom spoken aloud. However, audiobook listeners must be careful to not allow themselves to be alienated from their spatial or temporal surroundings. As my friend astutely observed, audiobooks have a particular strength that traditional print books do not: they can be read communally and simultaneously. A book read aloud to a group of people binds them together in a shared process of rumination, extending the act of apprehending and contemplating a written work of art from an act undertaken individually and internally to an act undertaken beyond the subjective self. 

Therefore, to achieve their fullest potential in aiding the process of human flourishing, audiobooks must be rooted in space, time, and community. We can look to oral reading’s extensive historical precedent for guidance on how to approach audiobooks today. The Rule of St. Benedict, which outlines the tenets of Benedictine monastic life and was a foundational writing for any contemplative religious community after the sixth century, famously asserted that “reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers,” and that these readers were to be listened to with “complete silence. No whispering, no speaking – only the reader’s voice should be heard there.” 

According to Professor Teresa Webber of the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College, Benedict was not alone in linking oral reading and mealtimes: “Other early monastic rules,” contemporaneous with Benedict’s, “are more explicit in advocating reading not simply as an ascetic discipline but also for its positive benefit in providing a spiritual counterpart to the bodily nourishment of the meal.” Additionally, monks would participate in an evening collatio, a reading which Professor Webber described to me in a recent exchange as aiming “to put edifying material about monastic virtues … into the head before going to bed.” Though the monks still read books privatim, mealtime and collatio readings were cornerstones of daily contemplation and community life.

This monastic practice incarnated reading aloud as a true and embodied form of leisure. It saw oral reading not as the way we often think of leisure – as “recreation, entertainment, amusement, play,” in the words of philosopher Josef Pieper, or a pause, rest, or break from the workday – completely gratuitous and use-less in a productivity-oriented mindset in which nothing is meaningful in itself. This activity’s emphasis on silence resonates with Pieper, who asserted that leisure is “a form of … that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.” To listen to another person read requires the “receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude” of leisure, which provides “not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” 

Although we do not need to join a monastic community to approach an audiobook well, we may need to reorient our audiobook habits to enrich the qualities of the human person which Benedict’s rule saw clearly. Finding a consistent time and place to listen to audiobooks is vital, but of paramount importance is the attitude with which we enter into this process. 

At the heart of all authentic contemplative activity is the truth articulated by Aristotle, modeled by Benedict, and echoed by Pieper: “We work so we can have leisure.” To listen to an audiobook on your commute or lunch hour means more than just a break from work: it transforms that time “in-between” into the reason we work that day. The work becomes subordinate to the commute rather than the commute to the work. If we listen to audiobooks in this way, we will find our days transfigured, as the frustrating grind of traffic and late trains or the mediocrity of turkey sandwiches and breakroom coffee becomes sacralized, places and times when we can see that we are not technocratic posthumans, but dignified and gifted creatures meant for a world that transcends efficiency.

We must also listen with an ear towards community. The discomfort of having a total stranger read you your favorite book is assuaged if we listen with another person. How many meals with family or friends, fractured by devices at the table or the stresses of work and school, would be reconstituted by the silence that comes with contemplation and surrender to the communal act of listening to a great novel together? And the more we listen to the books we love with the people we love, the more we may find ourselves called to become readers ourselves, surrendering ourselves to the intimacy that comes from sharing our voice with another, of speaking so as to be heard, of listening so as to understand. Maximization of efficient knowledge gives way to voices outpouring wisdom and love. The capacity to hear increases.

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