In 1883, a Swedish scholar called Evert Nymanover proposed a revolutionary invention, says Sam Apple in The Atlantic: “a device that played recordings of books”. He wasn’t the only one excited by the prospect of what he called the “whispering machine”; Thomas Edison had said the advantages of recorded books were “too readily seen to need mention”. But it took another century for the medium to enter the mainstream, and when it did, in the 1980s, the mood was very different. Literary types worried that the format made reading “so relaxing and pleasurable” that listeners wouldn’t engage with the text as much as they would by reading it.
They had a point. One study has found that people who read an article remember its content much better than those who listen to a podcast on the same subject. When you’re reading, you control the pace: “you can stop and think before moving ahead”. But is a lack of critical engagement really “such a bad thing”? Art isn’t just there to make us “think deeply” – it’s also about making us “feel deeply”. There’s nothing wrong with “keeping the intellect a little bit at bay”, and appreciating books for what they are: “a form of entertainment”.