All the reading I’m getting done while commuting is actually listening; I’m getting back into the audiobook habit. It’s a lot more convenient to switch on the iPod and go, rather than lugging a book along, having to stop reading it at transfer points and while walking. Plus, I get motion sick if I try to read in a moving vehicle. It’s much better to listen to the story while watching the environment around me.

I read most of Cryptonomicon via audiobook, supplemented with an ebook copy. I didn’t touch paper on this read–fitting, for a story that deals with the invention of the digital computer and modern cryptology. It wasn’t hard to switch back and forth between formats, and they each offered certain advantages. Below, a picture of what happened last time I read Cryptonomicon in paper.

Those are all notes about passages I liked, things I wanted to look up, and connections to the Baroque Cycle. With the e-reader, I can do an immediate dictionary or web search when I have a question, then continue the story. For passages I want to recall, there’s a highlight function–I can call up the list and click on any note to be taken right to the passage.

The advantage of the audiobook was the pace; slower than reading to myself, it forced me to listen and comprehend every word, no skimming, and no tuning out on the technical passages. When it got really complicated, I opened up the ebook and followed along as I listened, the visual information reinforcing the auditory. This is the first time I got a real grasp of how Van Eck phreaking works, for instance; on previous reads, I’d skimmed through that section and mentally filled in “then some techno-magic happens.”

It was also painful, in parts. There’s a scene where a character is struggling to escape a flooding mine; he gets stuck in a vertical shaft and nearly drowns. It’s a dark, claustrophobic, panic-inducing passage. I was on a train on my way to work, and could hardly breathe, I was so THERE with poor Goto Dengo. I had to keep looking around at all the lovely, open, breathable air all around me and focusing on how not-wet, not-confined, not-drowning I was. It’s a powerful moment in the story; almost overpowering when I couldn’t speed through to the end, but had to listen to every agonizing word of it.

Of course, there are drawbacks to electronic formats, too. I listened to The Poisoner’s Handbook last week, which was very entertaining, but I found it hard to remember the names of people mentioned because I hadn’t seen them in print. I pulled up reviews of the book until I found one that named the main characters, and that helped cement them in my mind. Similarly, when I’m recalling something I read in a book, I visualize where it was on the page; can’t do that with audiobook, and even the ebook is harder to do this with, as there’s no tactile indication of how far into the book the passage I want lies. I’ve always been a visual learner–there’s just something about being able to see the shape of a word that helps me process and recall it.

I didn’t have this problem with Cryptonomicon, because it was my fourth time through the book; the names were all familiar and matched up to word-forms already on file in my mind. As I get into the Baroque Cycle–only my second read, the first being some seven years ago–I expect to find it more challenging. It’ll be interesting to see how much I need to re-read passages electronically after listening to them.

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One Response to Electronica

  1. CAS says:

    What a thoughtful piece, Bear! I never really enjoyed audio books, and if I did ever fancy one it was the combination of the book and the narrator. Who could resist Dear Stephen Fry reading you his debut novel?

    I have to admit I love my e-books as well, especially language textbooks, for precisely the very tools you mention. The electronic books are still so limited in some of the niche fiction I am in love with (Japanese fiction and Scandanavian Crime), but that is sure to change. One drawback here in Old Blighty is that an e-book has VAT, where a hardcopy has a NIL rate.

    There is something to the hardcopy that I love, and I will mourn the gradual loss of that most treasured of experiences: chatting up booksellers! 😉 Actually what I will miss the most is the sheer thrill of browsing a bookshoppe and the serendipity that could bring to my reading life.

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