You’re Dumb and Wrong: Listening to audiobooks is not reading

By Jeremy Brown, Arts & Entertainment Editor

(Update: The reasons in this column are not attempts to discredit audiobooks as a medium, but to explain why the act of listening and reading are specifically different forms of entertainment. Audiobooks are great in their own right for a different, curated experience, or for those who are unable to read due to a variety of medical reasons.)

If you say listening to an audiobook is “reading” – you may as well say watching someone else play a video game is playing it. You are not the one in the driver’s seat – you were there when the action happened but you didn’t do any of it – don’t take credit for it.

The form in which you absorb entertainment isn’t interchangeable between media, which is why listening to an audiobook, while having its own merits, is not the same as reading the book it’s based on.

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I’m not arguing that written books are better than audiobooks. I’m just tired of getting excited when someone on Facebook asks “What are y’all reading? Here’s mine” followed by a freaking Audible hyperlink. I see you, Trevor.

Processing entertainment

Have you ever seen a performance of the play Hamlet or watched Kenneth Branagh’s word-for-word five-hour film version? If yes, have you now read Hamlet? No, you haven’t.

The biggest difference between listening and reading is that while reading, you set the pace in which you will understand something.

Example – I once read an old novel called “Rabbit, Run.” In the book, there is a line that says: “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.”

I must’ve reread that 10 times over. It still hits home for me because I’m another midwestern middle-class white male who’s had the same existential crisis as Rabbit. Go figure.

If I were listening to the audiobook, I’d hear that sentence with the same weight as the rest of the chapter. I invested more time into that sentence than if I heard it spoken once. My comprehension of the book is better for it.

Plus, you’re not going to rewind an audiobook. The rewind button takes you back an entire 15 seconds and, ugh, you just don’t have that kind of time, right?

Reader agency

Some audiobooks have great narration, like how my mom read “Holes” to me when my bedtime was still 8 p.m. This meant her narration limited my ability to interpret the information my own way.

Your emotions are based not just on the text that you’re reading when it’s an audiobook – the voice of the narrator is set and the emotions of the scene are strictly set as however the audiobook reader says them.

If you think that’s not a big deal, you need to give yourself more credit for independent thought. Interpreting an originally written work by reading it, you think more on the story and its themes.

In non-fiction, authors have implicit bias with the way they write about a true story. With an audio version, the narrator compounds this with another layer of bias that could influence how you see the story, differently than how you’d see it if you’d just read for yourself.

Authorial intent

“But the author is the one who did the audiobook, so I know how it’s meant to be told,” said someone illiterate, probably.

You want to know how an author wanted to tell their story? Through a book, because they originally wrote it as a book. That was the form they chose – it’s the same reason people have obnoxiously told you “the book was better” about a movie adaptation.

Sometimes their narration sucks. Do not listen to The Fran Lebowitz Reader over reading it. When reading, the voice is that of a hilarious, sexy socialite ready to insult everyone.

Lebowitz is an older woman and when she narrates these same columns they lack the brutal impact you’ll feel when reading her work. She is a fantastic writer and the picture she paints from that writing is more colorful than her voicework.

Authorial intent isn’t the most important thing in the world. In fact, sometimes you can find a meaning in text that the author never intended. Their intent shouldn’t invalidate whatever you’ve gained from their work.

Discussing this article with a friend, he told me that listening to audiobooks is still better than not reading at all. I agree, but for crying out loud, read also. In high school I would just Sparknotes the “jist” of so many novels. When I finally would read a full book, it was like my third eye was opened.

Considering how much these columns fall on deaf ears, I think my third eye is just as nearsighted as the other two.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The Daily Egyptian, its staff or its associates. 

You’re Dumb and Wrong is a weekly column about video games, movies and popular entertainment from Arts & Entertainment editor Jeremy Brown. Brown can be reached at [email protected]

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