Audiobooks. Do they really count as reading?
This question is as old as, well, the audiobook. According to PBS, the first audiobooks were produced in 1932, when The American Foundation for the Blind produced books on vinyl record for the blind. Eventually, audiobooks moved to cassette tapes in the 1960s, to compact discs (CDs) in the 1980s, to today, where audiobooks are available on countless digital platforms for streaming or downloading. From 15 minutes per side on vinyl to an entire 6, 8 or even 12-hour performance being available to stream or download within one file, audiobooks have come a long way. In fact, in 2019, more than 60,000 new audiobook titles were produced and, for the first time ever, US audiobook sales eclipsed ebook sales.
Yet, the debate rages on as to whether listening to versus reading a book results in the same or a similar experience. Does the listener comprehend the same message(s) as the reader? Is the listener as engaged as the reader?
Certainly, for those who are blind or for those with dyslexia or other reading handicaps, audiobooks are a boon. For these individuals, the work of decoding a text is less complicated; that is, the same mental process to comprehend the sentences and paragraphs once the words have been identified is the same, whether listening or reading. As a lifelong reader myself, I love the immersive experience of reading a book and appreciate the cognitive challenges of reading, interpreting and enjoying a text. I believe it is vital for every human being to learn not only how to read but how to read (and think) critically. However, I do think there's an argument to be made for audiobooks - and for learning to become more critical listeners. Let's explore further.
Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and a leading researcher of reading comprehension, argued in a New York Times opinion piece that, when it comes to listening to or reading books, "each is best suited to different purposes, and neither is superior." He found that two factors, the subject matter and the goal of reading, make us read differently. If the subject matter is difficult or when the goal is to learn something new, reading a text may prove more effective. When we read, we must focus, and when we focus, we slow down. We reread. We stop and think. We underline or highlight or scribble notes in the margins. With audiobooks, a majority of listeners report doing something else while listening (that's me!), and so the listener "gets the gist, not subtleties." Essentially, Mr. Willingham believes that there is little difference between reading and listening when it comes to "easy texts" or pleasure reading, but that reading in print is preferable and more effective when it comes to more difficult texts.
Now that we have an "expert opinion" on the usefulness and purpose of audiobooks, what say I?
As an avid reader and as a professional communicator, I believe that humans are naturally story-telling creatures. Walter Fischer's theory of the narrative paradigm posits that all meaningful communication between humans occurs via storytelling or reporting of events. Creating and observing narratives are how we make sense of the world around us. Before the written word, which is a fairly recent invention in the history of humankind, stories, traditions, rituals, parables and other information were passed down orally. Not to mention, so much information while communicating is received through tone, pitch and inflection (similar to non-verbal communication, where our facial expressions, posture and micro-movements communicate a lot more than just what we say.) To underline the point, Mr. Willingham, says:
“When we’re reading, we’re using parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes, and we’re MacGyvering them so they can be applied to the cognitive task of reading."
When I listen to an audiobook, I often become just as immersed in a story as I do when I read. There is a caveat, though. My enjoyment of the audiobook experience depends a lot on the quality of the voice actors. While a dry reading or the "wrong voice" can sometimes ruin the experience, thankfully there are plenty of good ones out there. In fact, having the "right voice" can immerse you even further into a story. One prime example of this is We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. The audiobook, narrated by Kathleen Gati, is exquisite. Ms. Gati narrates from at least five or six different points-of-view, nailing each character (both male and female), their accent, their idiosyncrasies, and their emotions with precision. It's an audiobook I'd happily listen to again as much for the voice narration as for the story itself.
Now, there are some who argue that reading is something you actively engage in, while listening is often a passive activity. When reading, you take in information; if your mind wanders, you can go back a line or two to refocus. On the flip side, when you listen, especially if you're listening to an audiobook while doing laundry or cooking or exercising, it's easy to tune out and miss a pivotal scene or piece of dialogue. I can appreciate the argument, as I am guilty of pressing the 15-second rewind button while listening to an audiobook when I realize that my mind had wandered elsewhere. However, I can truthfully say that listening to audiobooks is helping me become a better active listener. You have to pay attention; you have to slow your mind down and really take in the meaning of what is being said.
"Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self." - Dean Jackson
So, dear reader: no, it's not "cheating" to listen to an audiobook for your book club, and yes, you can mark that you "read" a book on GoodReads if you actually listened to it instead.
Ultimately, whether audiobooks are better than or as effective as reading is not the question to be asked and answered here. It's like asking, "Should I read Harry Potter or watch the movie(s)?" The book and the movie(s) are different forms of the same work. You get what you put in, and that old adage applies here, too. What do you want to get out of a text and how much time and effort are you willing to put into it? That's the question to ask about audiobooks.
Now! If you'd like to give audiobooks a try, there are a few apps/platforms I have personally used and recommend. I'll also include links to several of my most favorite audiobooks below.
My preferred audiobook platform is Scribd. I pay $9.73/month and have unlimited access to over 1,000,000 eBooks and audiobooks. I love the flexibility of being able to listen to more than one book per month, or to listen to several different books at any given time.
Next, there's Libro.fm, which is a platform that helps consumers buy audiobooks through their local bookstore(s). When you purchase an audiobook through this platform, they split the profits with the independent bookstore of your choice. You can pay $14.99/month for one audiobook credit, or purchase "à la carte" with no strings attached. I really appreciate this platform's mission to support indie bookstores. For those looking to "just say no" to the corporate monolith that is Amazon and "shop local," this is the platform for you.
Librivox deserves a brief mention here, as it's a non-commercial, ad-free, non-profit platform that distributes all books in the public domain for free. The books are read by volunteers and can be found in multiple languages, making the content even more accessible.
Finally, there's Audible, an Amazon-owned audiobook platform. I was originally using it but felt limited by the one-book-per-month membership and that, too, for $14.95/month. They now have a lower-tier membership for $7.95/month that allows unlimited access to "Audible Originals" as well as some audiobooks, podcasts and more, but does not allow access to their "premium" titles (which are essentially all the ones I'd want to listen to anyway.) They do have quality audiobooks and often have the latest and greatest when the other platforms are slower to acquire.
If you're looking to dive into some really great audiobooks, here are my top favorites:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (read by Karen Savage)
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson
The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Whatever method you choose to read or listen by, my eternal hope is that you find comfort, wonder and joy in the books you choose to keep you company. Happy reading, dear ones!
Questions: Let's discuss in the comments below!
Do you listen to audiobooks? Why or why not?
What do you like/dislike about audiobooks versus reading?
What are your favorite audiobooks?