The Great Audiobook Debate: Does Listening Count As Reading?

collageDo you have to use your eyes to get credit for “reading” a book? Do you get everything out of the experience you’re supposed to, or is it just one more apocalyptic sign that modern consumers of culture just can’t sit still and enjoy the finer things in life? Friends, writers, and fellow book club members Sabrina Rojas Weiss and Brooke Tarnoff debate this weighty issue.

Sabrina: After years of living in shame, I’ve decided to come out and proudly declare something about my literary habits: I haven’t actually read about 70 percent of the books I say I have—because I’ve listened to them as audiobooks. I’m done feeling like this is cheating. No more using air quotes when I say I read War and Peace. When done right, listening to a book is just the same as reading it. Maybe even better in some cases.

Brooke: I have the greatest respect for you and your literary chops, Sabrina, so I don’t want to come out and call you a reading cheater. But if the headphones fit…No, I’m kidding. Mostly.

Let me start by saying that I think I’ve shed my irrational, exclusive loyalty to printed books. I love the feel and smell of a “real” book, but I’ve come to embrace digital literature. I like to think it’s not the format I react to when I shun audiobooks, but the experience. In a perfect world without distractions, sure, listening to an audiobook could give you the same experience as reading the words with your own eyes. But in our post-MTV-generation world, how many people do you know who watch TV without a tablet nearby? Who eat dinner with their friends without a surreptitious email check every 10 minutes? With a book, if your concentration breaks, you can easily reread that paragraph you accidentally skimmed. But if your mind wanders—or your phone dings—are you always going to rewind to find exactly the point where you lost the narrative?

Sabrina: I did say “when done right.” And to me that means with the ability to rewind when my mind wanders. My mind wanders quite a lot when I’m physically reading a book, which often means that I get fed up with boring passages and put the thing down, never to pick it up again. But if there’s ever a slow passage in a book I’m listening to, I can easily power through it. This is how I’ve managed to get through the great, ponderous works of the 19th century.

Here’s the thing: I know that all sorts of science has debunked the idea of effective multitasking, but it also never offered me an alternative. As a working mother, every time I sit down to read, I’m distracted by guilt that I’m not doing the thousand other things I should be. I, too, love the notion of “curling up with a good book,” but that’s a rare luxury. If I’m listening, though, I don’t have to stop the rest of my life, and I can keep up with crazy-long tomes like The Goldfinch. Plus, if I’m doing something mindless, like dishes or working out, I can pay even better attention to the words. My brain is funny like that.

Brooke: Far be it from me to steer anyone away from exercising their brain while working out their delts—or their dishes, whatever—but speaking completely for myself, I’m not giving the book the attention it deserves if I haven’t chosen it in favor of the thousand things I should be doing.

I don’t think every single word is vitally important, and I’d never suggest you’re not absorbing anything when you listen, but it takes away the element of lingering over perfect sentences, flipping back to check story continuity or a character’s physical description, reading a fight scene suuuuper slooooowly to catch the fast-moving details. I remember reading Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and pausing on particularly clever turns of phrase just about once a paragraph. (I also remember thinking I was some kind of special snowflake for noticing how great his writing was, but that’s a self-congratulatory horse of a different, predictable color.) As a reader who writes, it seems like a missed opportunity not to stop and smell the proses, over and over, until passages like this sink all the way in:

“Love is like falconry,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s true, Cleveland?”
“Never say love is like anything.” said Cleveland. “It isn’t.” ―Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Also, please forgive me for “stop and smell the proses.” I hope we can still be friends.

Sabrina: OK, you caught me, Snowflake (so I’ll forgive you the smelly prose this time). I don’t rely on audiobooks when I’m reading a writer whose language is as (or more) important as his or her story and characters. If I’m reviewing a book or reading for one of my book clubs, I go for the text version as much as possible. I like to think of it as comparable to the difference between the big comic book blockbusters I want to see on the big screen and the talky movies I don’t mind watching on demand at home. Or the bands I like seeing live versus listening to on headphones.

What do you feel about “lesser” works, then? When I’m not trying to tackle those big books, I like to do my guilty-pleasure reading on my audio device. No one can tell I’m listening to hot vampire sex scenes on my commute. And it really is a great way to tune out any less-than-literary prose, and just pay attention to the good stuff.

Brooke: Who am I to decide what constitutes real literature? One man’s Frasier fanfic is another man’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. No, kidding. If such a man exists, he should be captured and studied for science.

You make a fair point. Actually, you make a couple: I would pay people reading erotica in public to switch to audio. But I think your bigger point here is that every reader has to choose for herself how deeply she wants to connect to what she’s reading—and how she connects best. From an ideological standpoint, there are definitely books I’d feel comfortable handing over to my ears. But while you concentrate better while tackling chores, I drift off and lose focus—if I listened to Fifty Shades on an audio device, I’d NEVER know what childhood trauma caused Christian’s problems with intimacy. So…maybe I should have listened to it.

Who wins this debate, Brooke or Sabrina?

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