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Do Audio Books Count?

It’s the age-old question: Do audio books count as reading?

Really, it’s probably more like “decade-old,” but I guess it’s still a heated discussion among literary nerds with nothing better to talk about.

Let me start by explaining my experience with audio books, using To Kill A Mockingbird as a case study. Here’s how it usually goes when I’ve listened to audio books while driving:

“Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it…”

There’s a cow. Steak for dinner?

“…Atticus pushing papers from the table into his briefcase. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter…”

What time is it? Crap. Still 4 hours to dinner.

“… nodded to Mr. Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him….”

Chicago has some awesome steakhouses. Need to go there soon.

“…off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit….”

Will the Cubs ever win a World Series? So sad.

“… wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly…”

Where’s my Ryne Sandberg rookie card? In the attic?

I simply can’t follow audio books.

I’ve tried to listen to an audio book three or four times in the last ten years, and I can never stay with it. I’m too easily distracted. My mind wanders. When I regain focus, I’m 10 miles down the road and the protagonist has managed to change his name, leave the country, and remarry a gypsy woman named Wanda.

But that’s just my experience.

I know many people who love audio books, who even, because of their busy schedules, would prefer to listen to audio books over reading a physical book or e-reader. That’s awesome. Sometimes, I wish I was wired that way.

But here’s my question: Is that reading?

Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, but isn’t that just listening—not reading in the true sense of the word?

Doesn’t your mind engage a story or a text differently when you are actively reading words on a page, instead of listening while driving your car down the interstate or running on a treadmill?

My terrible book snobbery doesn’t extend to audio books, I promise. I’m not judging you audio bookophiles out there.

But in the technical sense of the word—isn’t listening to an audio book, well, listening…and not really reading?

Fire away!

(Image: Paehder/Flickr)

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nel #

    I love audio books, but I rarely listen to books I’ve never read before. I listen to books like the Chronicles of Narnia, which I’ve read until the covers have fallen off my paperback copies. I love being read to, especially children’s books. But if I haven’t read it before, I want a hard copy. If I listen to it first, I still read a hard copy later. It’s not that I can’t follow the story, per se; I just feel like I haven’t read it yet.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  2. I listen to audio books all the time and love them. But I know what you mean about how easy it is to tune out while listening. On the other hand, without the audio version, I would never have “read” all of Tolkein’s Silmarillion, or would never have made it through 3/4 of War and Peace.

    There certainly are differences between reading and listening. But I imagine two people who had listened to a book could have as good a conversation about that book as two people who had read it. The only advantage I see to having an actual book in your hands is being able to flip back a few pages to double-check a fact or reread a passage.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  3. I agree with you totally. I can never focus enough, plus it’s like someone reading me a story when I was a kid. I used to get totally impatient and grab the book to read it myself. I am still that way, I guess

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  4. I used to hate audio books myself until i became unwell & it was a case or audio books or no books. My choice is always the printed page, but I def. do feel one has ‘read’ the book by listening to it. I can’t imagine doing it while driving unless it was a real long journey on less travelled roads, because there does need to be a certain concentration level, just as there would be with a print version. Recently I’ve only listened to audio books at night when my eyes have been sore. So then, I chose books that I might not have otherwise read – lots of classics are free for audio.(librivox.org) Worth taking a look or should I say a listen.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  5. I have issues to! I’ve only ever made it through the Harry Potter books on CD and that’s because I listened to them before bed when I was too tired to read anything else.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
    • I would think the Potter books would be easy to listen to, but they are so long.

      Like

      July 9, 2012
      • They did get long towards the end, but the voice actor was GREAT and somehow managed to keep me interested.

        Like

        July 9, 2012
  6. I’ve only listened to Harry Potter on CD, but I think if I were to listen to more books they would need to be of the fluffy variety where you didn’t need to hang on every detail. No classics on CD for me.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  7. Yes, it’s the same. Narrative is narrative, text is text. Without audiobooks, the drudgery of everyday life (bus rides, sorting laundry, walking the dog, cooking dinner, etc.) would be interminable.

    I listen to audiobooks all the time (podcasts, too). Maybe there is an element of training to it; you have to get used to listening with your brain in addition to your ears. But I don’t feel like I miss anything. Also, it’s just as easy to skim through text with your eyes. And I’ve certainly read a page or six on paper and then asked myself, “What did I just read?” because I was distracted by mentally making my grocery list or something. We fight distraction everywhere. I feel the same way about e-readers. Sure, I can check my email on there. I can also put down my physical book and check my email on my computer. The need to ignore that impulse is the same in each case.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
    • I will concede that I once tried to listen to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at an amusement park, and that was a fruitless endeavor.

      Like

      July 9, 2012
    • Very true. I lose track of what I’m reading all the time because of distractions. Just seems to happen more with audio.

      Like

      July 9, 2012
  8. Normally I don’t prefer Audio books. I usually go for audio books only during an nth reread. I “read” Walter Lord’s “A night to remember” from an audio book. I expected not to follow a single word but amazingly it was really good. I could imagine the scenes vividly. In fact I can still remember some of the lines from the book.

    However, I too am sort of a book purist. So I always prefer actually paper “books” 🙂

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  9. I would say that audiobooks should still be considered reading, especially if it’s the ONLY way a person can enjoy a book. My mother is legally blind, and for years she could only read by listening to audiobooks. She’s an avid reader and she LOVED the act of reading treebooks before her eye disease took hold, so while audiobooks just didn’t have the same feel, they were still the only way she could read for more than a few minutes at a time–even large print books became to hard for her (eye strain/headaches). Now that she owns a Kindle she can actually READ words again instead of listening, but she does both in equal amounts. I can’t imagine looking at my mother and telling her that listening to audiobooks isn’t actually reading.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  10. Raise that question with a blind group and see if you come out whole.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
    • Great point. I hadn’t though about that. But the point here isn’t that listening is any less than reading…it’s just is it the same thing?

      Like

      July 9, 2012
  11. Funny post Robert. I’d like to see an eventual follow-up that contains your train of thought while listening to Ulysses.

    I once had an hour-long commute to work and tried to listen to audiobooks in that time. While I enjoyed it, my retention was terrible. Then again, I feel that my retention while reading is only slightly above terrible sometimes…

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  12. In my opinion, audio books should not be considered as reading. They are only good if you wanna know “what the book is about in general”, but they can’t be a substitute to really reading the book.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  13. Hmmmm, wonder if I can get IJ on audiobook? Would it make any sense?

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  14. Yes! The two are different. Reading an action can take about a paragraph in a book, while listening to the “abridged” version usually takes a sentence said. Reading and listening use different areas of the brain. I agree, I have huge issues paying attention, and when I do, the images are not the same, and the story isn’t nearly as in-depth and detailed. The two are not the same.

    Great post.

    Like

    July 9, 2012
  15. I am the exact same way! that’s why when we would read books in class,i could never follow them. I’d either just not pay attention, or read ahead. Because like you my mind wanders tremendously and i can’t help it. I need words to look at so that i keep myself on track

    Like

    July 9, 2012
    • I totally agree. I am completely visual and only slightly auditory when it comes to learning or following someone else’s thought.

      Like

      July 10, 2012
  16. Gabby #

    Hmmmm, I am visually impaired and can either read print with my glasses, listen to audio books or, very rarely, read braille. I really don’t like it when people assume I can’t read regular print and correct me by saying I listen to books. To me, reading is reading. It doesn’t matter which format you choos

    Like

    July 10, 2012
  17. I started listening to audio books for my commute to work when I could no longer bear the aggressive style of the interviewers on the radio news programs. By the time I got to the office, I was shouting at the radio. So to protect my sanity I changed to something rather more soothing. I’ve found levels of concentrate do fall if I’m going through busy traffic (just as well) but then as Blake said, I also have lapses when I’m reading.

    Like

    July 10, 2012
  18. Yes. They definitely do. Not. Well, maybe. I’m actually conducting my own audiobook experiments right now by trying to listen to audiobooks for the first time in years. I’m listening to some light fantasy while gardening, doing laundry and walking the dog. The first book went by fast and I enjoyed it a lot. I’m enjoying it less now but I think that’s because the series is rather repetitive. I don’t count the audiobooks in the same way as I count the books I read – I have to categories now in my goodreads account. Read and listened to. Because it’s not the same. I don’t think I could ever listened to War and Peace or something of that caliber. But it works well for light reads that I might otherwise never get to.

    Like

    July 10, 2012
  19. I think audio books definitely “count” because you can experience a book by listening and some people may prefer this or simply not be able to read a book. I don’t really like audio books myself because I enjoy the actual process of reading. When I read it feels like the words are massaging my brain and it’s actually a really pleasant experience for me. But if I do listen to an audio book, I count it in my total books read, for example, and don’t just discount it because it was on audio.

    Like

    July 10, 2012
  20. I only tried it once, with Franz Kafka’s “The Castle”. I gave up after 10 minutes. I have the same problem like you, I can’t concentrate.

    I stick to reading, but I download interesting podcasts on my MP3 for walks or runs. I download NPR-like stuff about politics, history, philosophy, literature. These things are shorter and easier to concentrate on. Or if I fail to concentrate, not that much is lost.

    Like

    July 11, 2012
  21. Ishmael #

    “But in the technical sense of the word—isn’t listening to an audio book, well, listening…and not really reading?”

    Absolutely. And in the technical sense of the word, what many authors do is not really writing, but typing or even dictating. I know a great many authors who claim to have written books have not actually written a word of the books they have authored.

    Typing and dictating are fine, for what they are, but they are not writing. Writing legibly is a craft requiring dexterity and grace.

    I know I feel cheated when I pick up a thousand page novel and imagine the skill and effort that went into producing all those handwritten pages, only to find out that the words were produced by some automated process, and no actual writing was performed.

    Like

    July 11, 2012
  22. I’ve never actually experienced an audio book but I equate them to be the same. I know many people who simply can’t focus while reading the way you can’t focus with an audio book. I believe, like anything else, it is practice. I imagine people who have read a significant amount of audio books and paper books in their lives find the experiences to be the same. They are probably able to examine the language, themes, etc in the exact same way. I remember being surprised when I read Stephen King’s On Writing and he mentioned how much he uses audiobooks.
    If a person loves to read, it’s usually because a person loves stories. And in the end, you always “listen” to a story being told. When you read, you are listening to yourself tell the story. When you play an audiobook, you are listening to someone else tell the story. In the end, it’s the same thing.

    Like

    July 11, 2012
  23. King Richard #

    Personally, I have a 1 hr commute to and from work… I like to listen to audiobooks all the way. But I always listen to them twice. In a row. Just like a need to watch every movie twice, because suddenly, minor nuances, conversations, actions etc are more apparent (in the first half of the movie) since you now know the ending.
    However, I can’t sit still for even a minute or two… I start reading a “real” book, and suddenly my mind fills with creative stuff, inventions, things to do, solutions to a problem… and off I go to write things down, try something out, fix a problem, with only 1/3 of a page read. Like that it would take me years to read any book. Now I have Drivetime University, and it’s fantastic!

    Like

    July 25, 2012
  24. Gonzalo Kindt #

    Listening to audio books is practical and it meets the busy lifestyle of contemporary people. You can tune in to your favorite books anytime anywhere, while you are walking, sh… The popularity of iPod and MP3 players has raised the marketplace of audiobooks in recent years. Some book publishers also believed that audio books could outsell paperback books or e-books one day. Indeed, this pattern is clear if you think about some great benefits of audio books over paperback books. ^

    Have a look at all of the best and newest post at our blog
    http://www.caramoan.ph/caramoan-tinago-island/

    Like

    April 20, 2013

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