Arguably the most famous word in English literature, hwaet is the first word in the eight-century poem Beowulf. The actual meaning of the word is up for debate, but regardless of which side you choose, the word is some kind of exclamation to indicate the initiation of the telling of a story. Hwaet is there because Beowulf was meant to be heard.
In a recent psychological study, published in Frontiers of Psychology and discussed by Rachel Smalter Hall on Book Riot, it is stated that listening to literature is the least efficient way of learning, compared to reading silently to yourself or reading out loud. According to the authors of the study this would have consequences for people living in the twenty-first century now that technological advances have changed the way we consume literature, from reading silently to listening to audiobooks.
It would appear then, that the human mind is not wired to absorb information by way of listening. What the authors seem to have overlooked is the historical perspective of the audiobook. Throughout history, literature was meant to be heard, not read.
Why did people listen to literature, rather than read it themselves?
There are several answers to this question.
It was a matter of literacy.
A population where almost 100% of adults are literate is a late phenomenon in human history. For example, during the early Middle Ages, those who were literate were mainly men and women belonging to the Church or a monastic order. Priests, monks and nuns were more likely to be able to read and write than a king or a queen. Later on, literacy spread among the social classes with the expansion of education and increased social mobility. Still, most people could not read. And those who could read did not necessarily know how to write. And among those who could both read and write, as in the case of merchants, many knew only how to write numbers and not letters. Moreover, there was a difference between sexes—men were more likely to know how to read and write than women.
An example of women who were literate. Margaret Blackburn reading from a prayer book (c. 1420). The Blackburns were a prominent merchant family in York.
Church of All Saints North Street,York, England.
Photo: EH Kern.
It was a matter of availability.
Not until the introduction of the printing press during the fifteenth century did books become available on a wider scale in Europe. Before the printing press, books were copied by hand on parchment. Those who copied books were mainly monks who spent much of their time creating beautifully crafted illuminated manuscripts.
It was a matter of cost.
Because books were written by hand and decorated to become like pieces of art, owning books was something mainly for those who had money to spend. This continued to be the case even after the breakthrough of printing in the seventeenth century.
Literature continued to be read out loud well into modern times. Charles Dickens gained popularity from publishing his stories as serials that people read out loud to each other since not everybody could afford to buy a copy themselves. Charles Darwin wanted his novels read out loud to him rather than reading them himself. As late as the 1920s, professional reciters went on tour, reading literary works to the public.
In her Book Riot article, Rachel Smalter Hall questions how the results of the study were measured. Supposedly, the participants listened to a text but were quizzed on it in writing. Hall points out that this method could result in a misrepresentation of what the participants have learned since different parts of the brain are involved when listening or reading.
Hall’s doubts regarding the results fall in line with medical and linguistic research on reading. Medical research has shown that reading is a cognitive skill that needs to be learned and practiced, similar to playing an instrument. Linguistic research has shown that when reading a complicated text silently, our mouths and tongues move as if we are reading out loud.
Listening to literature is not a phenomenon brought on by technological advances in the near-past but an activity that has engaged human beings through thousands of years. If humans are less likely to learn from listening than from reading, I’m surprised that we have made any progress.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Rachel Smalter Hall “Are Audiobooks Worse than Real Books? Let’s Ask Science”
Sousa et al (2013) “The Way We Encounter Reading Material Influences How Frequently We Mind Wander,” Frontiers of Psychology.
The Independent “Listen! Beowulf Opening Line Misinterpreted for Two Hundred Years”
Medievalists.net “The Status of hwaet in Old English”
Modern Psykologi “Vad var det jag sa? Martin Ingvar om den svenska skolkrisen”