The aurality of audiobooks

What’s the difference between these two scenarios:

a group of people gathered together around an aoidos (an oral epic poet in Ancient Greece) to hear him recite Homer’s Odyssey;

and a London commuter listening to Emily Wilson’s translation of the same poem  narrated in an audiobook? (Wilson’s was the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman, by the way).

They are both oral experiences of poetry. But they are different. The first is an expression of orality, while the other is of what scholars call ‘aurality’. One is about the shared hearing of discourse, and can do without writing altogether. Ancient poems were usually fixed in writing much later. The other is about the shared hearing of a written text, and requires literacy. One creates common myths and a strong sense of community, the other helps the spread of literary culture.

Education in Antiquity and the Middle Ages was aural. The public readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy were aural.

Our audiobook experience is aural. But there is an irony. Though audiobooks may be shared (like on Audible), their experience is not. Listening to an audiobook remains a private experience, like reading. We privatize it even further when we wear headphones.

Experiencing an audiobook comes closest not to reading, but to those moments when our parents would read to us – note: from books, not from memory. Aural. It was a truly shared experience, creating a bond, letting the voice sink in along with the words. The narrator was by our side, smiling.

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