Hwaet! The Thousand-Year History of the Audiobook

Hwaet.
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.

All Saints North Street fönster 3
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.

Royal 10. E. IV, f. 3v K043854
Pages from the manuscript Royal 10E IV, France late 13th century.
Source: Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

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.

CT22372a
Initial letter in Leviticus/ויקרא‎, Vayikra/Wayikra, France, 1277–1286.
Source: Additional 11639, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

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.

Sources:
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”

Advertisements

What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

VirginiaPoe
Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

3a52078r  Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA