The listening vs reading debate

After a particularly heated discussion with workmates and an offhand comment from someone in my book club, I need to know – does listening to a book on audio count as reading?

Actually, that’s a lie. I already know the answer to that question, what I really need is backup. Because I absolutely, positively think it counts as reading. Obviously, there are issues with the word ‘read’, seeing as most dictionary definitions require the text to be ‘looked’ at for it to be read, but language is evolving, so let’s just make a new verb that encompasses all forms of book consumption. (Come on, if twerking can make it into the dictionary, I’m pretty sure we can get this one across the line.)

The main reason I feel, no, scrap that, the main reason I know it counts as reading is that the end result is the same. Whether I read Jane Eyre with my eyes or listened to it, I still know how it begins, how it ends and everything in between (with the exception of the bits I skimmed, but that’s beside the point). So, what’s the difference? If someone asks me a question about a novel, and I’ve listened to it on audio, I’m still going to be able to answer the question.

One of the arguments against is that if someone is ‘reading’ a book to you, they could influence how you feel about certain issues, characters and plotlines, which doesn’t leave much room for you to interpret things on your own. I get that, and maybe that’s part of the reason that I’ve only ever read (that’s right, READ) non-fiction books on audio. But I still don’t think that means you can’t say you’ve read the book. It just means someone else has interpreted it for you – which, well, that doesn’t sound so bad to me. Maybe if I’d read the Sound and the Fury on audio I’d have some idea of what it all meant.

One of the other arguments I have heard bandied about is that people don’t feel like they concentrate as hard or as well when they are listening to something, as opposed to reading something with their eyes. Well, that’s not really my problem. Just because you need to clean out your ears and learn to concentrate doesn’t mean you’re not reading.

What about blind people who listen to audiobooks? Does this mean they are not allowed to claim to have read a single book in their lives? Does reading in Braille even count?

Help me out here people? Am I being unreasonable? Do you think listening counts as reading?

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9 replies »

  1. Great topic. Audiobooks definitely count as reading. there is the odd book where the visual of it is important but these are the exception. I think most books could be enjoyed just as much as physically reading them.

    When I reading your post I was reminded of students I’ve had in my class in years past who have varying degrees of visual impairment. Having books on audio can be a God-send for people who have difficulties physically reading or for whom it is a strain, but could anyone really accuse anyone who reads in this way as not being well read? I don’t think so.

    On a personal note I prefer to read physically rather than listen to audiobooks, mostly because my mind starts to wander and then I’ve missed what the person has said. But I wouldn’t take this and turn it into an argument against audiobooks. They don’t particularly work for me but I know they work very well for others. It would be silly for me to conclude that I am a ‘better’ reader because of my weapon of choice!

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    • Thanks for the solidarity. 🙂

      Just quietly, I’m actually the same – I find it quite hard to maintain concentration if I’m listening to a book, and am not sure I could listen to a fiction audiobook. But I’ve really enjoyed the memoirs that I’ve listened to (read!) – having the author read you their memoir is a really special experience and can only enhance the reading pleasure.

      It just really surprised me that people would even think listening to an audio book wouldn’t count. My book club girl said she felt like she had ‘cheated’ by listening to it – like it’s a cop out or something. Weird…

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  2. I’d have to disagree. I don’t think listening counts as reading. I think audiobooks are storytelling in the most original form that are meant to be heard. Reading is composed of a visual aspect. Even though you may have the same feelings from listening to an audiobook as if you’ve read it, it’s still different media. When someone says they “read an audiobook” it always raises my eyebrow. The voice component with the Kindles that allow you to listen to and read (seeing the words) the book at the same time is the only exception I can see. Reading comes from written language. It’s been that way since paper and pencils.

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    • But an audio book is still a written object – it’s still a book that has been written, it’s just the medium of how it’s being communicated that has changed. I’m sure when typewriters were first used, people thought that books typed on them weren’t the same as handwritten books.

      Do you then think that if someone listens to the audio of a book, and someone asks them if they’ve read that book, they’re not ‘allowed’ to say that they have?

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      • People have freedom of speech. I just wouldn’t think someone saying that they’ve read something that they’ve listened to the most intelligent thing to say. We can all agree to diasgree. That’s like saying you’ve read a music album. You didn’t read Katy Perry’s album even though the song was to be written first.

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      • I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek about being so confident in my opinion on this one – I can definitely see both sides of the story. I just think if something is written as a book, then the way it’s consumed shouldn’t matter – it’s still reading. We are just stuck on an antiquated definition of what reading means. (And I love a good debate 😉 )

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  3. Uh, no you are definitely not crazy. It totally counts as reading! Personally, I can listen to audiobooks because my attention wonders too much. 30 minutes will go by and I will realize I have no clue what just happened. Haha. But it is reading for sure.

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    • Thanks! I definitely think that audiobooks require more concentration – in some ways, listening to them is probably really good practice as it would force us to be more mindful in our reading. (But yep, I’m the same – it’s SO hard not to drift off…)

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