Reading Audiobooks

If you listened to an audiobook is it responsible to say in conversation that you “read the book” without qualifying that it was an audiobook? Does listening to an audiobook constitute “reading a book”? The answer is “yes,” although this will require some explanation. The question sounds strange because I just said that you listened to it, and didn’t read it, didn’t I? And “reading” isn’t “listening” so how can listening to an audiobook allow one to claim one has “read the book”? I think some of this discussion is motivated by my own enjoyment of audiobooks in the face of those who can only be called “reading snobs” who dogmatically believe that books can only be “properly” processed one way: via the written text and with one’s eyes. There also may be a perception that listening to an audiobook is somehow easier or intellectually lighter than reading the text of a book. To this I say: try listening to an audiobook sometime. In my experience, audiobooks can be very intellectually satisfying and may even be a heavier cognitive load than reading text because your eyes are free to roam and process independent information. This forces no small measure of mental discipline to remain focused and engaged but still function (e.g. if you are walking or driving).

I just listened to David Brin’s excellent Uplift War on audiobook, and unapologetically declare to the world that I “read the book.” For full disclosure, I’ve also read Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, all three Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, and Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, amongst others. All on audiobook. From a social point of view, if you and I got together to discuss these works, my experience of them would be such that you would not be able to determine by our conversation if I listened to it or physically read the words on a page. In this sense, I can responsibly claim to have “read the book” even if my eyes never looked at the words. That is, using Brin’s work as an example, unless you asked me to spell the names “Uthacalthing”, “Tymbrimi”, or “Athaclena” (which I did not know how to spell until I looked them up just now) — but then I’d ask you to pronounce them and we’d be even.

There are two elements to consider: 1) reading as a physical method of information transfer and 2) reading as an intellectual exercise involving mental content absorption. Both senses of the term “read” are used regularly and interchangeably and we will need to remind ourselves what is really important. Certainly a quick scan of the dictionary (and one’s own experience) demonstrates the word “read” in the English language is used in many different ways. One of those ways is the specific biomechanical method of scanning physical symbols with one’s eyes. However, that same exact sense of the term also describes the methods of a person using their fingers to process braille symbols. Feeling something is biomechanically and mentally nothing like seeing it, but we are still comfortable using “read” in that context, allowing “read” to span the senses because it accomplishes the same intellectual function as reading symbols with one’s eyes. This is important. Other grammatically correct uses of the word “read” also include a broader defintions involving generalized mental information processing and experiences. Phrases like “I read you loud and clear” (e.g. for a radio transmission, when listening), “reading a situation” (assessing the subtleties of a situation, including your own intellect), performing “a cold reading” (another situational assessment tool used by magicians and “psychics” involving both mental acuity and all the senses), “I’m taking a sensor reading” (to describe a technology-based data acquisition process), and so on. For the primary defintions of “read” Merriam-Webster is actually rather non-committal about the method and focuses on generic sensory information processing, definitely emphasizing the written text and braille, but not insisting upon it, allowing for many other modes.

In this spirit, let’s examine what people mean in conversation about a work of fiction when they say “I read the book” or ask “did you read the book?” Let’s assume we are dealing with educated adults and not people just learning to read text. I assert that what people universally mean by the question “did you read the book?” is “did you intellectually and emotionally absorb and process the content of the work that was created by the author?” If I listened to an unabridged audiobook in an active and engaged way, I think the answer is unambiguously “yes, I read the book.” Sure, from a methodological point of view, I did not literally (literally) read the physical text on the page with my eyes. However, this is not usually the important part of the novel, nor is it generally the important part of “reading novels.” The mechanics of looking at words is not typically the essential experience of reading books. The important part is mentally absorbing the content of the work, which is actually the core definition of the word “read” to begin with. Why would anyone care about your particular mode of information transfer? What they (hopefully!) care about is the experience you had intellectually and emotionally absorbing the content and your ability to discuss that experience in a way that transcends the transfer mode.

Do all books lend themselves to this audio mode of reading? No. Obviously not. Exceptions include works that rely directly on the shapes of words or encoding extra information in the precise layout of the text, font, or presentation. If the work involves lots of pictures, illustrations, data, or equations, audiobooks are not going to work very well. But the bulk of modern fiction lends itself wonderfully to audiobooks as does much non-fiction. Like so many other things in life, one needs to account for individual cases. Also, this equivocation is not appropriate for people (e.g. children) learning to read symbols on the page. An audio experience is not an adequate substitute for that kind of information processing during those fragile formative years. This argument is directed at people who have mastered both reading and listening and are educated adults.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we follow the reductio ad absurdum path and call all forms of information processing “reading” in every context for all conversations. That is a straw man of my argument. I’m merely suggesting that actively listening to an unabridged audiobook can, for social and intellectual purposes, be considered “reading a book” based on the sense of the word “read” one uses in conversations of that kind. There is nothing more I would gain from a content or entertainment perspective by re-reading the book using physical text in order to “elevate” myself to “having read the [text of] the book.” Nor am I suggesting that we substitute listening to audiobooks in place of reading text in schools, although I do think both forms could be used in tandem or parallel. As mentioned above, reading symbols is obviously a critical core skill that must be developed actively and early. But, once mastered, I assert that the two forms of information processing, listening and reading, blur into each other and naturally compliment each other. And I’m certainly not dismissing the process of reading physical text as an intellectual and worthy exercise. I still read many books this way. Also, I’m not claiming that there is absolutely no difference cognitively between how the brain processes words and symbols and how it processes sounds. But I do think that in the case of listening to a word-for-word reading of unabridged audiobooks, and for the educated person who has mastered both reading and listening, the audio experience and the reading experience merge for all practical purposes into a common intellectual experience with only minor variations that do not favor systematically one mode over another except by the taste of the user.

A couple tangential examples, that inform the discussion. A formally trained and competent musician can look at a piece of written music and, for all practical purposes, “listen” to it by reading it with their eyes. The audio performance itself, of course, also has aesthetic value for that musician. But it would probably be appropriate for someone in that position to say, in either context, that they “listened” or “heard” the piece even if it merely involved reading the sheet music. Indeed, musicians who can read written music like that do refer to reading sheet music as having “heard” or having “listened” to the piece. In contrast, many bands we worship refer to “writing” music for their albums. However, rarely are any notes or music written down in any formal sense. Many rock/pop bands “write” music by playing it and piecing together sections into things than sound nice after editing (if they are lucky). Later, some music grad student, desperate to eat and pay rent, will be hired by a company to transcribe the sounds on the album into written notes, so other people without ear training can also play the songs; but that isn’t the way the band itself usually “writes” music — unless you are Yes or Dream Theater. If the Rolling Stones speak of “writing” music for a new album, they almost certainly mean a wanton, drug-infused geriatric orgy in the Caribbean that might have involved Keith Richards bringing his guitar. But the term “writing music” is still used. We can also reverse the situation and look at words on a page that were meant to be spoken out loud, such as plays. Take Shakespeare. Certainly the stage play is considered a respectable form of literary art and Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of the English language. But the plays he wrote were meant, designed, crafted to be read aloud and listened to. Yet we read them. Can you still read Shakespeare and claim to have experienced the work in an intellectually satisfying way and be conversational about it? Obviously. Does the stage work bring the work to life in a different way? Clearly.

Also, reading words on a page is not itself a magic recipe for intellectual absorption. Reading text can be pathologically passive if one is not actively engaged, and does not imply extra profound and deep understanding. Let me give an example from my own experience in the classroom. I tell students to “read chapter 10” from the text. And, indeed some do look at it with their eyes and the words are streamed through their thinking in some fashion. But in many cases no cognitive engagement has occurred. By speaking to them, I can tell that they did not, in fact, “read” the text as I meant the term “read.” In this context, “read” did not necessarily literally mean merely looking at the words, although it might conveniently involve that biomechanical process. I really just wanted them to come to class having processed and understood the material provided in the book by whatever means necessary. If that involves listening to the audiobook, it just doesn’t matter to me (although, good luck learning quantum mechanics from an audiobook).

Does watching a movie adaptation of a book count as “reading the book?” Not in my opinion. Putting audiobooks in the same category as movie interpretation of books is missing the point. I claim the unabridged audiobook is not, fundamentally, a different medium than the original work — not any different than the braille modes of reading that are considered “legitimate” reading. When we read books using the written word we are, in fact, “speaking” the words to ourselves in our head anyway exactly in the way the book is being read in an audiobook. A movie, even one adapted to be nearly identical to the book, is usually abridged and has been altered from the original work in fundamentally different ways. Moreover, one is not required to visualize the plot and characters in the same way as one does in reading text or listening to a reading of text.

I am not judging all these different modes or ranking them. They each serve their purpose and can give pleasure and intellectual stimulation in their own way. But I argue that, under many common situations, listening to audiobooks accomplishes the same social and intellectual function as reading text and can thus be responsibly declared a form of “reading the book.”