Daily Egyptian

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]

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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36 Comments

36 Responses to “You’re Dumb and Wrong: Listening to audiobooks is not reading”

  1. Will on February 21st, 2019 9:40 am

    I like your thinking here, Jeremy, and just wanted to point out a possible oversight.
    While most of us can relax and enjoy digging into a good book, there are some that cannot. I, for one, can not replace the feeling of grabbing the print and going to town, sometimes finding it hard to stop.
    My daughter, on the other hand, has a high level of ADHD and just reading a book is next to impossible.
    Being able to listen to the book has enabled her to get through her books and engage on a different level with their content. This has made a huge difference in how she “reads” and comprehends the content of a book.
    Thanks for listening to this former DE’er

  2. Dwyn on February 21st, 2019 11:18 am

    You’re so ableist it’s disgusting.

  3. Bryon Kluesner on February 21st, 2019 12:24 pm

    I disagree with the comment in the article “If you say listening to an audiobook is “reading” – you may as well say watching someone else play a video game is playing it. ” If you are blind, listening to an audio book or a textbook using technology to read it out loud, yes, you are reading the book. Don’t be so shallow.

  4. Carey on February 21st, 2019 12:43 pm

    I am grateful that today’s technology permission me access to information and entertainment across multi-media availability. I’m never at a loss for improving and expanding my mind.

  5. Dave on February 21st, 2019 12:56 pm

    Most of these arguments are too simple. I’ve “read” many books in audiobook format and I count them as read. The argument that I won’t go back and listen again, not true. I’ve gone back hundreds of times to listen to an important passage. I pause the book to take notes. I listen while cleaning, walking and commuting and still do the above. I’ve gone back to listen to a book again. I have also read many physical copies of books and had poorer results in how I digest and remember the information (even related to books for entertainment). While I understand that your argument isn’t to discredit them, it does appear to say it is inferior in it’s benefit and that one cannot say they’ve read a book by listening. I completely disagree. The only reasons I see to buy physical or electronic copies anymore is for intense study and note taking with particularly dense material that I’d like to reference repeatedly and quickly in the future. To that there is an advantage I can stand behind but your blanketed statement sounds more like you want to be superior for reading over listening.

  6. CHRISTOPHER DAVIS on February 21st, 2019 12:56 pm

    I feel you have mistitled this by omitting the words “for me”.
    As an active reader and a active listener to audiobooks I could not disagree with you more. There have been multiple times where I have physically read half a series only to listen to the second half on audiobook or vice versa. Other than the odd pronunciation of a name I have never found myself in conflict with the way a narrator portrayed a character. The analogy of the video game is completely off base because in a video game you actually have control. You could say I would have done XYZ where you did ABC where in a book it’s just a book. Accents aside the author sets the tone for the characters much more so than the narrator.
    If I had to sum up the gist of this article I would probably use ” you’re dumb and wrong” listening to audiobooks is reading.

  7. jen on February 21st, 2019 1:16 pm

    This is grossly ableist, and incredibly condescending. I’d suggest sitting down and reading about ableism so that you can try to understand why this hot take is flawed.

  8. Dj on February 21st, 2019 1:51 pm

    This is some abelist, elitism nonsense.

    Audiobooks allow access for many who would otherwise not be able to read at all. My grandmother was an avid reader, a trait she passed to me. When her eyesight went, audio books were the only way she could continue her beloved hobby.

    But more than that, who are you to tell me how I should or should not enjoy my entertainment? I’m perfectly capable of reading, but sometimes I prefer audiobooks. I enjoy hearing how someone else reads it, how they interpret it. Sometimes you have the privilege of listening to the author read it, such as Douglas Adams reading Hitchhiker’s Guide. You can also get the same book read by Stephen Fry and Simon Jones and they all bring something new and interesting to the table.

    Is listening to the audiobook the same as reading it? Yea. It is. Calm yourself. Just as every human is going to have their own interpretation of their reading, everyone also has their interpretation of listening as well. Do you absorb the words of the book during both actions? Yes you do. Can I discuss a book I read with someone who listened to it? Of course.

    There are no fundamental differences. You wanna wave a hand and say “But IMAGINATION” and that would be nonsense that insinuates that the act of listening removes the imagination required to be invested in a book.

    Plus, since this is the tone you want to set here, I don’t know how much credibility we should be assigning someone who was reading cliff notes in high school. What kind of cheap cheating lazy nonsense is that?

    SpongeBob.gif “WhEn I fInAlLy wOulD REad A FUll BoOk, iT WaS LiKe mY thIRd EyE wAs oPeNEd.”

    Oh wow. Amazing. You hit high school and suddenly a reader is born and now you’re lecturing on your superiority of reading purity? Buddy, I’ve been reading multi-thousand page novels since I was 7. I lost points in Fifth grade because for book report day my analysis of the entirety of the Foundation series was “too much for the class and I needed to reel it in a little”.

    So how about we take it from someone who didn’t need to discover the mystic awakening of their third eye in high school to understand literacy.

    Your opinion is dumb and wrong. Audio books serve an important purpose. Those that depend on them *and* those that choose them are not lesser Intellectuals than you, so calm your jets cliff noter.

  9. Erin on February 21st, 2019 2:24 pm

    This isn’t ableist at all. I’m Autistic and have a hard time paying attention to my reading, but audiobooks are fundamentally different and are NOT reading. Any ability to make personal interpretations about how things look or sound is completely eradicated when listening to an audiobook. I could have “read” hundreds of books should I have lowered my standards for myself to using audiobooks, but I refuse- the academic rigor of reading for COMPREHENSION cannot be ignored.

    Reading feels like working my way through quicksand, but I remember every point made and almost every passage. I can’t remember a damn thing from an audiobook. Because I’m not actually paying attention. I don’t think it’s possible to pay attention to an audiobook without multi-tasking unless you have a sight impairment.

    If you can read, you should. If you can read, audiobooks are cheating.

  10. Kevin on February 21st, 2019 4:20 pm

    At 60 years old… one of the first of many in the early seventy tested to have had dyslexia… audios saved my life ….! Starting with Dryer to hours and hours of whom every… I may not had picked up “that line” the first time but driving down the road listening pushing rewind or multiple times all six tapes. Saved my life.

  11. Jordan on February 21st, 2019 5:04 pm

    You first say “I’m not arguing that written books are better than audiobooks”, then you continue to do exactly that for most of the article.

  12. Kate on February 21st, 2019 5:25 pm

    I like to read–it makes me feel great. But I have a friend who’s blind, who listens to books. I’m saying this is a silly argument/article to be writing–if someone is learning and consuming stories that might enrich their lives, then let them do it with no judgement.

  13. Bill Mullen on February 21st, 2019 5:35 pm

    Personally, I enjoy listening as I read the written word. It helps me stay focused and I find I absorb much more. It is well known that when we see and hear something, it is easier to understand and retain.

  14. Kurt Weidenthal III on February 21st, 2019 5:44 pm

    Article too long. Requesting audio version, please

  15. Connie JenkinsI on February 21st, 2019 6:34 pm

    I am 82 and had been reading 2 to 3 books a week. My eyes suddenly went bad and even after two surgeries I am still having trouble reading. The audio books are a good enjoyable way to pass time as TV is often pretty boring. Everyone can’t see good.

  16. Kirk on February 21st, 2019 6:52 pm

    It’s hard to read & work out. Hard to read a book & drive. Audio book & work out yes! Road trip & audio book yes.

    Although always wondered if reading was helpful to being smarter ie brain problem solving/functioning vs audio books.

  17. Loubird on February 21st, 2019 7:56 pm

    You make some very valid points but why degrade and belittle those who listen for various reasons?NYTimes had a thoughtful article December 8, 2018 “Is Listening to a Book the Same as Reading.” Maybe you should read it.

  18. Jbm on February 21st, 2019 8:02 pm

    I do agree with some of this article. However to say that an audio book is less than a typed book because they are not the same is crap. If the audio book is abridged then yes they are not the same however if the book is unabridged they are the same words weather I read them or you read them to me. You just need to lean to listen better

  19. Taylor on February 21st, 2019 9:05 pm

    Hey,
    Books are not accessible to a large majority of people! Be it because of learning difficulties, time, language barriers or a number of other things! Let people enjoy books in any form and stop shaming them because reading with their EYES is more important than tbe content of the book.
    Not to mention lots of people read both. I read both, I preferred print media until I had a major knock on the head and physical books became more of a challenge for me. While I recover listening to audiobooks doesnt mean I’ve STOPPED READING, it means I’ve changed format to how I currently learn best. I cant believe how narrow minded your argument is here, and it is exluding a huge swatch of people just because they dont learn like you do. Just because you dont get the full “book experience” when you listen to audio books doesnt mean thats true for others.
    Maybe instead of critizing others for how they read you could be more appreciative that so many new people have access to literature that was previously not avaliable to them!!!

  20. Sal A. Bianco Jr on February 21st, 2019 9:13 pm

    There is no question that what you say is so true. However, my wife has MD and see can no longer see much, never mind even read. Audio books give her a way to enjoy the story behind the book, but she and I both agree, the narrator is as important as the author. I myself find it a poor way to enjoy a book, but in her case it solves a major problem. When my sons were young I would read to them, no not for the stories sake, but to teach them that by reading as narrate the story( one case is the original hobbit) they read along side me, learning to pass me with the excitement. When the name Gandalf was coming up, they would see and I would read the name slowly, but they would yell it out and make the story more real to them. They are both in their 60’s and they still like to listen to me. Yes who the narrator is make a great deal of difference. But reading it yourself put the true meaning into each word as it flows through your mind. Thank you so much for making people realize that it’s in the reading that put true meaning to each word.

  21. Taylor on February 21st, 2019 9:26 pm

    “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.”

    Also, hi again
    Hamlet is a screen play. With your argument here in this article it would actually be worse to just read it because it was INTENDED to be seen and not read.

    Also, reading an audiobook where the author reads their own book is a magical experience. I reccomend Stardust by Neil Gaimen, if you listen with your third eye open you still get to form your own experience with the book while hearing the way the author imagines the characters to sound. Now, if you see the movie this no longer counts as reading a book, just a warning so you dont freak out.

  22. Nathan on February 21st, 2019 10:03 pm

    I feel like the difference is negligible. I really and listen and as a primarily auditory learner, I find this article rather insulting. I have listened to things so profound that I have hit the “15 second back” button but you should also be aware that there are many ways to listen. Many of which supply a much more refined rewind functionality. Many narrators work with the authors when recording so any “Authorial intent” argument is mute in most cases. Though so not argue that it does not exist entirely. I simply don’t see how one can argue that one medium over another is superior. Your apparent ability to glean more meaning from written word over narration is nice and I wish I had it.

  23. Kemala on February 21st, 2019 10:15 pm

    Thank you very much! After this, I am convinced that: I am still going to count listening as reading, and no I didn’t read your article. The title is enough to stop me from keep on going. So, no thanks.

  24. Mark on February 21st, 2019 10:31 pm

    The topic you are addressing relates to mediational means. In cognitive development we speak of a tool that mediates between ourselves and things we want to understand or interact with. The development of mediational means allows us affordances or the value added by the use of a tool.

    The idea that printed books as mediational means are better than audiobooks suggests a bit of a naive response to mediation. Printed books and audiobooks simply provide different affordances for a learner. One is not necessarily better. People have learned through oral traditions for a long time. Reading books gave us different affordances. Both tools have advantages and disadvantages. Books allows for an individual to carry a lecture with them for instance. Now, with an audiobook, a learner can take the lecturer with them.

    James Wertsch’s research sheds light on the fact that the evolution of mediational means has always generated these kinds of reactions, decrying something new because it replaces, waters down, or corrupts something familiar. What Wertsch suggests is humans adapt to the new tools and the affordances offered by them. Some reactionary people suggest the new tool is inherently flawed, but we evolve and learn with every new tool. Think spell checker, texting, graphing calculator, etc. Each have generated a reactionary response, yet these new mediational means have all proved to be valuable new tools. So will audiobooks.

  25. Joe Bob on February 21st, 2019 11:23 pm

    Is there an audio version of this article? I’m driving and it’s not possible to read this.

  26. Cassandra Barnes on February 22nd, 2019 12:12 am

    I agree with Will on this. As an ADD person I find it very hard to pick up a book to actually read it unless it’s a book on wild plants (which you can’t put into audio form). Not to mention the fact that I work for a living and am on the road a lot so I have very little time to actually read a hard copy of a whole book without losing interest.

  27. Joshua on February 22nd, 2019 12:48 am

    Decent points, the click bait title is off putting, but would I have read the article if there wasn’t a catchy title? No, problaly not. I will now update goodreads with only audiobooks selections, goodlisten-reads.com

  28. D. Andrew Terrill on February 22nd, 2019 1:15 am

    Is there an audio version of this? I don’t have time to wait through “reading” this, but I could listen to it while I go about my day.

  29. Silvia on February 22nd, 2019 1:31 am

    I think I should get extra credit for listening to audiobooks, because I can’t skim through the boring parts. Also, for not reading while driving. Plus bonus points for learning how to pronounce all those words no one ever uses in normal conversations.

  30. Angel Monera-Martinez on February 22nd, 2019 2:13 am

    I think, when someone reads something, what we do is use this inner voice to pronounce the words that we read and in that way we listen ourselves “reading it out(in) loud” (at least this is the case of a normal student that is not fast reading a text by the means of visual recognition that require some effort and a lot of training to do so)… So in one way, reading is also listening… But I agree that many will not stop or rewind the audiobook when something complex happen with the thought, I will get that later or.. “I don’t think this was important”, missing maybe the deep meaning of the phrase… In my case, maybe because I use a different reader\player I find myself playing the audio back and back and back 7\10\30 second at the time till I get it or I give up but only if I feel the book it deserves. Also I am not native English spoken…

    I believe that if a good professional reader read a book for you is even more immersing than doing it your self for the first time (I am sure they have read the book more than once in order to get the right tone to the reading). But for this to be you need to be doing nothing else than listening… Not working in the computer, or driving, or… Working in your car\motorbike\ikea furniture…(that’s normally me)… But some times I find this audiobook that is incredible in meaning and in reader quality and I find myself seating in the living room alone, almost in darkness listening exclusively for hours and hours this wonderful book letting it all playing in my mind and I feel like I was there, she I would feel of I would be reading it for myself.

  31. Emily on February 22nd, 2019 3:20 am

    Having dyslexia prevents me from enjoying most books because of the format of the text and length of sentences. Listening to audiobooks has opened me up to enjoying most novels that I wasn’t able to when I was in high school. To let you into my world of dyslexia think of these things. How would you feel if you were reading and you kept accidentally rereading the same sentences three times? How would you feel if you got a headache after reading for just 10 or 15 minutes? Reading a book was a chore for me and I hated it. Audiobooks have allowed me to enjoy novels finally.

    You said things like listening to an audiobook prevents you from making your own emotional decisions on a book. And I’d have to disagree, after listening to a chapter of a book I would sit and think about but I just listened to. I’d analyze and pull it apart and sometimes relisten to parts of the chapter. You give me a little credit on my individual thinking.

    Also you made a comment that someone “illiterate probably” listens to the audiobook. (While I’m sure it’s a joke, it’s still kind of triggering and insensitive.) Yet here I am reading your article and able to write a response. Also I love story so much that guess what I like to write stories myself. I even went to school for it: Creative Writing Major here.

    And finally I’d like to say that people have different learning styles. Have you heard that a person best learns visually or audibly? What seemed to you get a lot out of visually reading a book, understand that I get more out of the book by listening to it. To help you understand more, I think audibly too. When I think of numbers, I hear them in my head. Some people might see the number instead though. It’s all a matter of how they can absorb information best.

    In conclusion, I think your opinion that reading is the best way to absorb a book is actually a preference. Looking down on other people who choose to read audiobooks means that you are lacking in understanding their reason for choosing such a format. I hope my example can better help you understand that every human is different and have different ways of understanding/ processing information. No one way is the right way.

  32. Kristin on February 22nd, 2019 5:12 am

    I get what you are trying to say. There are clear differences, but why is your tone so demeaning. I listen to audiobooks all the time, and yes, I may miss some things in listening to it, but I wouldn’t get through near as many books if it weren’t for audible. I’m also not less intelligent because I choose the audio version as opposed to reading it myself.

    .

  33. Heather on February 22nd, 2019 6:14 am

    Well, you are entitled to your opinion. As are the rest of us. First, you can change the rewind time in Audible to whatever you would like. For example, mine is set at 7 seconds. You can also bookmark passages and go back to them any time. I read many books during the year and listen to many as well. I have a 30 minute commute, both ways, every week day. Audio books are a godsend. I listen to self help, biographies, fiction and plays. I bookmark things I want for later and go back to them often. Sometimes I even write them down when I finally get to my destination. I have “met” many authors this way and heard the book from their perspective…their voice. I still love a book in my hand. I have already completed 3 this year alone. But I also love the audio experience. I am on my 5th book of the year.

  34. Tracy on February 22nd, 2019 6:48 am

    “Plus, you’re not going to rewind an audiobook…”

    Actually, yes, I am. When I’m moved or intrigued or confused by something I hear, I will absolutely go back and give it another listen. Maybe five or ten more listens. And I’ll bookmark it for future reference.

    Side note: I’m sorry that you’ve never enjoyed a truly excellent audiobook. I recommend: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One narrated by Wil Wheaton, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale narrated by Claire Danes, and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants narrated by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones.

  35. Debbie on February 22nd, 2019 7:38 am

    Frankly, as an ex-special education teacher and current certified occupational therapy assistant who has worked most of her adult life with children who have special needs I didn’t think I would ever use these harsh words towards another human being but I now feel the need to say I think YOU are dumb and wrong. Dumb is not a word I like to use but in this case I will make an exception. Not everyone can sit down to read a good book. Some need to be read to. Some may not need help but prefer to listen to a book on their commute rather than listening to the radio. Some may want to hear the author’s own voice read a book. Plus, you really can use your own imagination while listening to an audiobook just like you can while reading it anyway, unless your imagination is not that great and you are dumb and wrong…..

  36. Ann M Richardson on February 22nd, 2019 10:30 pm

    You are entitled to your opinion, as others have stated. However, your point is diluted because of your condescending manner and apparent superiority complex. I am wondering how much reading vs. listening has helped you.. oh, and it’s “gist”, not “jist”.

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