Wait. Did You Read the Book or Just Listen to It?

brain scan

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I’m not the reader of books on paper or screens that I once was and it’s mostly a matter of time. Audiobooks allow me to multitask, which I’m sure many people will say is not the way to experience a book.

If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? I have friends who react to my audiobook habit by saying “But you were an English teacher!” I (sadly) knew a number of English teachers who rarely read books. I might have once felt guilty about not reading the physical book, but I don’t feel any guilt now. And I do still read some books and magazines on paper or screens. I certainly tried to get ahold of the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 800+ page novel, 11/22/63, this summer. But I read it on paper. Quite slowly.

I am glad to find new evidence that suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a book might not be so different.

You might have overlooked the research when you were flipping through a copy of the Journal of Neuroscience at the doctor’s office because the title of the article is of that academic (yawn) variety: “The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality.”

But what the researchers did was analyze brain scans of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of episodes from “The Moth Radio Hour.”

In the summary of the research that I read (on a screen!), after analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word. The brain scan data analysis showed that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium.

The researchers published their first interactive map of a person’s brain in 2016. This colored diagram shows a brain divided into about 60,000 parts, called voxels. They analyzed the data in each voxel to determine which regions of the brain process certain kinds of words. It’s pretty amazing to think that one section responded to terms like “father,” “refused,” and “remarried” which they classified as “social words” because they describe dramatic events, people or time.

Listening and reading showed that words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity. This was a result that surprised the researchers who expected (like my friends) that two different things were going on in my brain.

I have always thought, especially when I was teaching English, that people who struggle with reading either because they just don’t like to read or have dyslexia or some other real condition that makes reading really difficult can benefit from audiobooks. I wouldn’t have a problem with a student listening to the audiobook of an assigned text. It is certainly preferable to not reading it at all – and I know that happened with assigned reading.

So, listen to a book guilt-free!


Happy 200, Mr. Melville

MelvilleToday is Herman Melville’s birthday. He was born August 1, 1819, in New York City in a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants. But the family when he was born the Melvilles were in decline.

He left school at 15 to became a bank clerk. He also tried farming and teaching, but it was when in 1837 he took to the sea for the first time that the Herman Melville will know began. He was just a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with cotton, but he liked being at sea. Returning to New York and then in the West, he tried various jobs but found no “career.”

Returning to the East in1841, he signed up on the whaling shape the Acushnet, which spent several years in the Pacific. You would assume he loved this life since he wrote about it most famously later, but in fact, he did not. The Acushnet was a place of cruelties and he jumped ship in the Marquesas. There he was held in “friendly captivity” by the Polynesians. he escaped on an Australian whaler, which he also eventually abandoned and made his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

TypeeReturning to New York in1844, he was now 25 and he found there was an audience for his exotic sea stories in the islands. He wrote about his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner in his first novel, Typee. Publishers at first questioned the truthfulness of this non-fiction, but in print, it was an instant best-seller. He followed up quickly with a similar book, Omoo.

He married in 1847 and lived in New York with his younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters.

His next book was a novel was very different from the first two successful books. It was a rather fantastical, romantic work called Mardi. This book was not a best-seller, but the Melvilles moved to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which I plan to visit this month).

At the farm, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and a friendship began (though it seems that Melville considered Hawthorne more of a friend than Hawthorne did).

Melville explored transcendentalism and allegorical writing and wrote at the farm what would be his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

Moby-DickThe novel is an ambitious, lyrical, unconventional and epic story. He dedicated it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” But Moby-Dick or The Whale got mixed reviews. Readers who had liked his two earliest books did not find the same thing in the new tale.

Considering its classic status today, Moby-Dick was the beginning of the end of his career as a novelist. His subsequent books were largely literary failures. He did some farming and wrote articles to pay the bills, but the family ended up returning to New York City in 1863,

Melville became a customs inspector and tried a second literary life as a poet, writing a lot about the then raging Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which received praise but he never returned to the prominence of those first two books.

He never saw Moby-Dick reach the stature it has today, and his remaining stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd. His literary revival began in the 1920s and Moby-Dick is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. I didn’t see any celebration of his 200th birthday, so I want to send this remembrance out into the universe for an author who has meant a lot to me.

Melville stamp

Hank Thoreau

Thoreau stampHe is listed as an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, tax resister, and transcendentalist. Henry David Thoreau (pronounced in his time as thorough or THOR-oh) was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817.  I have written about him here before and I am a big admirer of Walden; or, A Life in the Woods. But his life was not filled with Walden-like experiences.

He graduated from Harvard and then worked in his father’s pencil factory. He taught for a short time but quit because he didn’t want to administer corporal punishment, which was standard in those days. He opened a school with his brother, John, but John caught tetanus after cutting himself shaving and died. Then he went to work for Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet, and leader of the American transcendentalist movement. He moved into Emerson’s house and tutored his children.

I don’t know that this was the real inspiration for his time at Walden, but he accidentally burned down 300 acres of woods near Concord. His friend, Ellery Channing, advised him to “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.”

Hank did that. He entered the wood on Independence Day, July 4, 1845.  I’m sure he liked that symbolism. The woods were at Walden Pond which was near Concord.

He built a small cabin and he did live there – with some trips into Concord which was an easy walk for him. I think some people imagine Hank at Walden Pond as some kind of hermit, but he was social. He had three chairs for visitors.

In the book that came from his time at the pond, he describes his experiment in self-sufficiency that lasted 2 years, 2 months and 2 days (symbolic number?).

Many people – myself included – have fantasized of having a year like that, just listening to whip-poor-wills singing, frogs croaking, and owls hooting.

He grew some of his food and ate fish, salt pork from town, and woodchuck from the woods.

There were actually three ponds there and he seemed to like all of them:  Walden Pond, Flint’s Pond, and White Pond.

But he didn’t walk out of the woods with a finished book. In fact, it took almost nine years for Hank to complete Walden; or, A Life in the Woods (1854).

Here is one of his run-on sentences from the book:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau 1854
Thoreau in 1854 when Walden was published

The book has inspired future ecologists, environmentalists, hippies, and armchair Thoreaus.

Later in life, Hank became interested in yoga and Hinduism.

He contracted tuberculosis. One evening when he was 44, he was out in the rain counting tree rings on a stump and came down with bronchitis. He never recovered from it.

On his deathbed, his Aunt Louise asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”


The Language of Flowers

I came across this Victorian volume of The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems which is a bit of botany and partially a poetic look at the “language of flowers.”

Victorians were pretty repressed about their emotions but flowers sent to someone could communicate. That might be one rose (love) or some arrangement of multiple emotions.

The dahlia represents instability

In this book, a carnation represents fascination. The geranium is gentility. The  dahlia is instability. Why? I have no idea. But some of these associations have persisted into our time. The rose still represents love. But would you have known that a deep red rose represents “bashful shame?”

As with tarot cards, if a flower is given reversed, it implies the opposite meaning. So, I suppose a rose revrsed is hate? According to the book a rosebud from which the thorns have been removed, but which has still its leaves, conveys the sentiment, ‘I fear, but I hope,’ because thorns imply fear and leaves mean hope. I suppose a bouquet of rosebuds without leaves but all the thorns intact would look pretty fearful.

A Weeping Willow seems appropriately symbolic of mourning. But Winter Cherry as meaning deception and Woodbine as a way of communicating fraternal love are a mystery to me.

"w" flowers

There have been updates since this Victorian volume from 1857. You can page through the volume and some others at publicdomainreview.org

Mad as a March Hare

March hare
The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland
The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

Further Journeys: River Horse

William Least Heat-Moon is best known for the now modern classic Blue Highways, a book I wrote about earlier here.

Since then, I read about another of his journeys that he chronicled in River Horse. This time he starts out from New York Harbor aboard a boat he named Nikawa which means “river horse” in Osage. 

His plan is to reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. He has a companion this time, a First Mate he calls Pilotis, as he attempts a 5000 mile water journey. 

This trip would be more miles than any other cross-country river traveler. He follows the path of some other famous inland explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Lewis and Clark. 

In some ways, this voyage is similar to his truck trip around the country. He runs into more real battles with nature (floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather) but he also meets interesting and helpful people with tales of their own.

The landscapes of Blue Highways become riverscapes as they take the small motorized boat down rivers, lakes and canals from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The book also carries more of an ecological story about our lands and waters.

I still have a few other Heat-Moon books to read. I think my next one will be PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In that book, he sets off on foot. It is a big book (624 pages) and from reviews I have seen, it is quite different from Blue Highways and River Horse

PrairyErth is a term that Heat-Moon found in an old taxonomy to describe prairie soils. In this book, he does not attempt to walk across the country, but instead he picks a specific area of prairie. In the same way that Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” and how Annie Dillard became a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in Virginia, Heat-Moon attempts to explore every bit of the 774 square miles of Chase County, Kansas in the geographical center of our country.

If this big book seems too much to take on right now, consider William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of short-form travel writing. Here, There, Elsewhere has short pieces on trips to Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico and also to Long Island, Oregon and Arizona. He visits and writes about small towns, big cities, the shorelines of our country and places hidden inland.