If I were a betting person, I’d wager your first exposure to books was having someone read to you. A parent or other relative, a babysitter, even a kindergarten teacher—at some point, as small children, someone read us a book, and sometime after that, we learned to read.
But once we’ve learned to read, something happens. For many of us, learning to read replaces having someone read to us. And, I suspect, this is why so many people come to think that listening to books is somehow a less valid way of experiencing literature than reading it for ourselves.
I never had this experience. Like everyone else, my first exposure to books was having someone read stories to me. Then I learned to read, and by six or seven was happily devouring chapter books on my own. But that wasn’t the end of listening to books.
For one, my mom continued to read books aloud to our family after dinner and on long car trips. This was how I first heard The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and The Prydain Chronicles, among others. But sometime in grade school, we also started listening to audiobooks—an experience which has permanently changed the way I engage with books.
My mom, my younger brothers, and I used to take turns picking out audiobooks from the library and listening to them in the car. If the book was especially absorbing, we would bring it inside with us and listen to it over lunch. This was back in the day when Books on Tape were still books on tape, so we could move our cassette to and from the car without loosing our spot. Books on CD were less convenient.
In high school, one of my first jobs was as a page for the Ypsilanti District Library. My job involved shelving books, organizing the shelves, and assisting patrons when they asked for help. This would have been tedious, only I got the idea early on of listening to audiobooks as I worked. During my tenure as page, I went through just about every audiobook format, from cassette to MP3, even going so far as to borrow my dad’s old walkman to broaden my options.
At the peak of my career, I sometimes knocked out four or five audiobooks in a week. I think it’s fair to say I exhausted most of what was available: I sampled every genre in every reading demographic, meaning I listened to a breadth of material I otherwise would have skipped, simply because I’d listened to everything else of interest.
For a while, I avoided classics. I thought that I should save the really good literature for reading. I thought that listening to Anna Karenina would be cheating. And I didn’t want to slog through an audio version of Moby Dick only to have to read a physical copy later. But eventually I broke down for several reasons:
- I’d exhausted everything else I was remotely interest in.
- I’d grown to appreciate the audiobook experience and was less convinced listening to classics would constitute cheating.
- I realized that my time on this earth is finite, and listening to literature meant I’d be able to consume more of it.
However, while I may have overcome my own prejudices regarding the legitimacy of listening to books, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of people out there who still feel that listening to audiobooks is cheating. I’ve noticed this expressed both by avid audiobook listeners who feel insecure about their reading habits, and… well, snobs, who insist that audiobooks don’t count.
Obviously, in a purely literal sense, listening and reading are different verbs. But it is equally obvious that what we want to know is whether listening to a book and reading it have equal merit.
In all honestly, I must acknowledge that listening to a book isn’t exactly the same as reading. I notice that, when reading a book, it is easier for me to skip back and forth between pages. If I forget a character, I can flip back a few chapters and remind myself who the are again. This is very hard to do with an audiobook. Similarly, if I’m reading non-fiction and I zone out mid-page, I can back up a few paragraphs and start over. It’s easier for me to keep track of where I am and what I’ve covered, and that has some obvious points in its favor. For instance, I find it very hard to listen to serious non-fiction, because it’s too easy for me to become distracted and lose my spot.
I would also say that I pay more attention to the prose when I read—as in, I notice specific word choices more. I’m more likely to stop on a paragraph and re-read it, and I find it absorbs my attention more fully. You can’t multitask while reading a book.
Audiobooks, on the other hand, are designed for multitasking. I’ve listened to audiobooks while driving, sewing, drawing, walking, cooking, or working any job that would be dead boring without something to keep my mind occupied. On the other hand, I find it difficult to listen to an audiobook without something else to do. Listening on its own is usually not enough to keep my attention from wandering.
However, while I may be marginally less engaged, I find my long-term retention of a story is about the same. I read War and Peace, but I listened to Anna Karenina, and I remember Levin’s romantic view of peasant life just as well as I remember Andrey’s existential meditations on the oak tree. I feel elevated and broadened when I listen to a good book just the same as if I read it. I feel the same level of emotional engagement, and the same level of intellectual stimulation.
Listening to a difficult book can be fatiguing, in ways that are very similar to reading one. It is probably easier to listen than to read, but this has some benefits, too. The best part of Moby Dick is the opening sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” After that, the book is a dead bore that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Not that my word has to count for much. Bob Dylan thought it was awesome. Nevertheless, I’m so glad I didn’t have to read the book to discover that it wasn’t for me—listening to it was hard enough.
I’ve also come to feel a great amount of admiration and respect for various audiobook narrators. I am convinced that a good narrator can elevate a book past obvious weaknesses in its prose. Narrators add life and drama to a story, they build in suspense and emotion, and a narrator who can bull off a broad range of accents is a positive delight. I love The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but listening to it is a marvelous experience. And as much as I adore Harry Potter, I’m nearly convinced that Jim Dale’s narration is the One True Way to experience the books.
So, if you’ve ever felt guilt about listening to a book rather than reading it, or if you’ve ever avoided doing so because you’re worried about the experience being less legitimate—don’t. It is far better to expose yourself to great writing than otherwise, and with a great narrator, you may even gain more from it than you would from reading.
And if you need any more reasons to justify audiobooks to yourself or others, I have plenty for you.
Listen to audiobooks because you’re busy, and this is your best chance to expose yourself to literature.
Listen to audiobooks because your book pile is a mile high and you won’t get to everything otherwise.
Listen to audiobooks because you want to expose yourself to new genres and new authors.
Listen to audiobooks because you want to experiment.
Listen to audiobooks because your friends keep recommending books to you, and you don’t want to keep putting them off.
Listen to audiobooks because you love literature but struggle to read.
Listen to audiobooks because you love a good narrator.
Listen to audiobooks because you love them.
Life is short.
Listen to audiobooks.