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In which I explain why Audiobooks count ...

In which I explain why Audiobooks count as reading

Jul 20, 2022

I usually don't mind telling this story because it has a happy ending, mostly, and no it's not a romance.

Well no it is a romance in a way, but it's a very untraditional romance story.

It's the story of a little boy who falls in love despite being told that he will never be able to love something.

The year is 1994. The location: small town (around 3000, a good number of which live in a nursing home) Kansas.

A first grader struggles in school. He can't focus on the words on the board, he can barely read three words together. He has a heavy speech impediment that makes it hard for people to understand him without him having to repeat everything he says several times. It's so bad he considers never talking (too bad even at that age he has thoughts and opinions). He's in speech therapy. He's picked on and bullied for how he talks because children can be cruel. It's not a new story.

A lot of tests are done and the child is declared "special education". Not that the state of Kansas has an idea what is actually wrong with the kid, he's just "special education". He has to go to the special education class some of the time where they are supposed to help him. Mostly it's just doing activities and does nothing to address his issues with reading, writing, or how to focus. This is just before the ADD crazy where they pumped an entire generation of boys full of Ritalin (this isn't to discredit those it did help, but for those of you who don't know or don't remember, it was overprescribed in the US during the late 90s/early 00s). The special education teacher once said "Once in special ed, always in special ed." The philosophy that kids with neurodivergence can't be helped and should just be managed through school until they can fill menial low-income jobs.

I can't prove it but I'm not sure that the State Board of Education of Kansas actually had heard the word "dyslexia" in 1994. Given Kansas' general distaste for science, progress, learning, or anything resembling being different, I feel confident that they probably hadn't.

Fast forward to 1996. Third grade. now our particular little boy's family doesn't have a lot of money. Food stamps, WIC, crushing credit card debt, you know the story. His parents took on the noble cause of being librarians and college professors rather than accruing wealth. But who better than educators to help a little boy with dyslexia?

A sabbatical year in Lawerance KS as his father pursued a PH.D. to advance his career options opened some doors that were not available in small town/rural areas. Specifically the ability to find one of the foremost specialists in dyslexia therapists in the Midwest, with a bit of financial assistance with a small (like a few thousand dollars small) family inheritances from a great-grandmother who had recently passed.

But the struggle was real. The boy was in 3rd grade and anything beyond Berenstain Bears was a challenge. Other children's books like Dr. Seuss were almost maddening with their tongue twisters. Early chapter books like the Boxcar Children and Little House on the Prairie (because of course that was required reading in a KS school for obvious reasons) were exhausting to struggle through.

Every night the little boy would read with his mother, alternating agonizing page after painful page. Do you want to know what it feels like to be low? When all the other kids in your class are blazing through the simplest of books in a day and reading a chapter takes hours because the words just won't stay still and the teachers who are supposed to help write you off as a frustration. In 3 years of school not passing a single spelling test, barely qualifying reading comprehension for reading levels a grade or two behind. Did you hate being called on to read out loud in class? At least the teacher felt you could do it and wouldn't pass you up every single day, and not just in reading. It spirals to them just assuming you can't do anything so why bother?

Alright I said this was a romance and has a happy ending so don't feel too down.

Because around November of 1996 this little boy's parents and therapist realizes that he doesn't care about Boxcar Children (seriously those books are the literary equivalent of watching plain oatmeal cool). Mom starts to read YA fantasy with him. Now when I say YA Fantasy remember this was before anyone had heard of Harry Potter. YA Fantasy back then meant Narnia, The Blue Sword, Taash and the Jesters, Dragonriders of Pern. Old Fantasy before it became commercialized with a formula. It was a fantasy written by a fantasy enthusiast for fantasy enthusiast. The boy could barely read it but it opened his mind to what literature could do for the imagination.

Christmas 1996. The little boy unwraps a small square package from his father. He unknowingly is opening the most important gift he will ever receive because it's going to change the entire trajectory of his life.

Inside is a square wooden box, engraved are the words:

J.R.R. Tolkien's Classic
The Hobbit
Produced by The Mind's Eye

A radio dramatization of what is possibly the first high fantasy novel. I don't think I need to go into details as to why this story is so important and has been so influential on many many people. Also, the little boy got his first walkman which is important.

Because he listened to those six cassette tapes every day he could He burned through AA batteries so fast that they bought a battery recharger to cut down on expenses. Because he had fallen in love. Fallen in love with a story, fallen in love with a genre, fallen in love with storytelling, and the need to share stories with others. He still has that box of six cassette tapes on his bookshelf. He no longer needs them because it's all on youtube or apple music or whatever you want to use. But it doesn't matter, because that wooden box opened a world bigger than any wardrobe, bigger than any looking glass or tornado. It opened the world of all books everywhere for him.

Because listening to the story (and it's a dramatization remember, so it's slightly abridged) did something that reading on its own couldn't: it gave voices to the characters. So, of course, a few months later when he found a copy of The Hobbit on the shelf he knew the story, he knew the voices of the characters. The pacing the beats. Because listening to the story, and hearing it over and over it helped align his brain to know what the words were supposed to say, so he could visualize what the words were supposed to look like on the page.

Other audiobooks followed and listening along well reading the story opened up the world of literature in a way that all the education, all the teachers, all the tricks, tips, and ideas couldn't. Because The Hobbit made the little boy know what a book could do, where it could transport him to, a place where even a little hobbit could make a difference compared to all these great people who would rather dismiss him. Now he wanted to read, and now, through audiobooks, he had the tools to achieve that goal, even if it was through listening because it helped his brain wiring comprehend what was on the page.

So next time someone tells you that "audiobooks isn't real reading" and "reading is a separate skill" think about that little boy who couldn't read and who was dismissed by the people who shouldn't have dismissed him. Think about the fact without audiobooks he might not have ever learned to read, or at least not well enough to read the great works of literature that have wrestled with and tried to define human nature. Then tell them to get off their pompous high horses and shut the hell up. Because reading is one of the most powerful tools humans have. Sometimes it's so powerful that it drives people to tell their own stories, to write books for other people who were told they'd never be able to read. Because reading is for everyone, some of us just have to get there differently and to dismiss how someone gets there because it's not how you got there is arrogant, cruel, and short-sighted.

Anyways, keep dreaming, stay hydrated; open your mind to other possibilities.

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