Audio Books: Reading or Not?

Many years ago, someone in my book club stated that she “listened” to her books instead of reading them. At the time, I was shocked by the statement. Why would anyone join a book club only to have someone read the story to them?

Now, years later, and with a much heavier schedule, I still find myself leaning toward traditional reading but I can easily see why audio books are so popular. But, having a story read to me leaves little to the imagination. I know there are exceptions. There are some really fabulous narrators out there and they manage to paint quite the scene in their delivery of the story, but it’s still their interpretation of the story, isn’t it?

Intonation, dramatic pauses and the like would probably be different if you read the book yourself.  In turn, the experience would be different. At least that’s what I believe. Not necessarily better, I want to make that clear, but different. The process of seeing the words, processing their meaning and the actual formulation of thoughts would be different. I think about the story while listening to an audio book but it’s not active listening…it’s passive and I will catch bits of meaning here and there.

On the rare occasion that I do listen to a book on audio, I do include it in my reading stats. So this isn’t a conversation about whether or not they count. But, is listening to a book considered reading? What do you think? And for those of you who use audio books often, what do you like about them beside the obvious time-saving aspects?

56 thoughts on “Audio Books: Reading or Not?”

  1. I find that I’m more likely to zone out while listening to an audio book. When I listened to Jane Eyre, I had to keep rewinding or backtracking because the commitment required of my mind just wasn’t latching onto the words.

    A text read by my own eyes is much easier to filter through my brain. But that’s just me.

    1. That’s how I am too. Sometimes I will even re-read a page just because it’s so beautifully written or it’s structured in a complicated way and requires me to look at it again. You can’t do thateasily with an audio book.

      1. The only “book on tape” that I’ve ever really enjoyed was Anne of Green Gables / Avonlea because it was read by Megan Follows, the actress who played Anne, so it fit the story. Her voice is incredibly clear and relaxing.

  2. I always listen to audiobooks during my commute or on long car rides. One thing I’ve been finding is that I enjoy audios in cases that I don’t think I would enjoy reading the book. James Patterson is an example…I don’t think I would enjoy reading his books at all, but I love the audio versions! When it comes to good literature I agree that you definitely get more out of it by reading the book. I can tell you that when Khaled Housseini releases a new book I will be reading it and not listening to it for sure. Reading allows me the chance to savor the words and read sections over when you can’t really do that well with audios. Sorry for being long-winded!

  3. No, I do not consider listening to a book the same as reading a book.
    I like to listen to books only when I am traveling long distance and then I still think that I have missed a lot by just listening to the book.

  4. As a former 2nd grade teacher…who taught reading more than any other subject…listening is not reading…unless you are following along in a book…hee hee hee…and pointing to streams of words with a marker…hee hee hee…

  5. I agree with Patty….as a teacher, listening is not the same as reading. I also will daydream when I have tried listening to audio books, so they just don’t work for me.

  6. I think audiobooks totally count as books, so listening to counts as reading…but it’s a different kind of reading. When I read books, I can take in language and phrasing and allow the plot to be secondary to the writing. But I need something different in audio books. When I listen, I want engaging plot and good narration, but I find it more difficult to attend to elements of the writing. So, I’d have to *read* Toni Morrison rather than listen to her (and I tend to have to read lit fic in general), but I can listen to thrillers, memoirs, creative nonfiction.

    1. With Morrison I am the opposite. I have trouble with the words on the page but listening to her books work better for me. She is the only author that I’ve noticed this with (so far).

  7. Ti, I am brand new to Audiobooks, but I think I am in love with them. Around the time I started my blog, Devourer of Books was hosting an Audiobook Week. I had always been really skeptical of the idea of listening to a book. I really like hard copies, I love feeling the pages in my hands and flipping back and forth to check on something or other. That is not so easy to achieve with an Audiobook. Being open minded, however, I didn’t want to just write them off without first trying one. I took Devourer’s suggestion and bought The Help by Kathryn Stockett on Audiobook and have been slowly working my way through it. I find that it is an excellent opportunity to “read” while doing other things that would otherwise limit my time for regular reading. I now look forward to cleaning the floors, washing the dishes and scrubbing the toilet. In fact, I find myself searching for more housework to do so I don’t have to stop listening to the story.

    Another aspect to consider is that I think I am enjoying The Help more on Audio than I would reading it myself, because it is told from so many different perspectives. Four perspectives are offered through the course of the story and I know it would drive me nuts reading them because I find myself getting confused between characters in books that only use two perspectives. Listening to the different characters, each voiced by a different narrator made it exceptionally easy to keep track of everybody.

    I’m sorry…I seem to have created a blog post in your comments section. I’m new…what can I say?

    1. Thanks for stopping by! You made several, excellent points. As a reader, I am always looking for ways to get my reading in so audio books certainly help with that. No doube about it.

      I suppose you have to take into consideration the type of reader you are and just go with what works for you. I am a bit more open to audio books than I was 10 years ago but I still have my reservations over using them.

      Happy reading!

  8. I think it should be counted as reading..especially for those that are vision impaired. This is their way to read. But for me I’m having a hard time getting involved in audio books. This is probably because I just love the words so much. I have been following Jen’s (Devourer of Books) audio posts very closely. She listens to a lot of them and when I decide to download one to my iTouch I’m heading to her site first!

    1. For the visually impaired, it most definitely does count as reading. Having a book read to you via a text reader is like listening to a robot. Horrid.

  9. I agree with most of you.. there are certain books that I can listen to more readily than others. Mostly non-fiction is easier for me to follow on audio than fiction. I find it’s harder to catch all the necessary elements of fiction when you are trying to make sure your attention is on the road (I listen to audiobooks in my car as I spend so much time in it in Los Angeles and radio often gets on my nerves).

    I, too, was a teacher and actually disagree with the teachers above. I taught middle, elementary, and preschool. And with the young children, listening is absolutely fundamental to reading. It is why it’s so important to read to your children when they are young. It helps cultivate a love of reading as well as teaching them vocabulary and pronunciation. An adult example: I recently listened to our book club selection on CD, and found that during the discussion I was helping others pronounce phrases and places because of it (it took place in France).

    My preferred course of reading is on paper, but I do value audiobooks very much.

    1. I am finding that I agree with nearly everything that’s been said, even the varying teacher viewpoints. There are so many different aspects to learning, that it makes sense that there are different ways to approach it.

      1. Absolutely. I can’t say that I would suggest audiobooks (primarily) for elementary or middle schoolers as they need the practice reading… unless, of course, there was a special issue that audiobooks could help with.

        One other interesting thing… everyone has a learning style (even adults) and it would be interesting to find out the correlation of visual learners with people who love to read. I know I’m a visual learner who prefers to have written instructions to guide me through a new process.

        1. Wouldn’t a visual learner be a person that needs to see it done? I write technical documentation for adults and even though the instructions are step-by-step, some adults need to see it first before they can even follow the instructions. I suppose if we are comparing audio books to books that the act of reading WOULD be the visual form. Wow, deep thoughts this week. LOL.

  10. I listen to audio books on long car trips, but otherwise like to read it myself.

    I actually tried listening to one of the Mrs. Pollifax books on tape. I love the series, but couldn’t stand the reader because of how she interpreted the characters. They weren’t “my” characters. I never tried to listen to one of them again.

    So yes, the audio version can be a very different experience from the written word.

  11. I think you know how I’m going to answer this one! About half of my books a year are audio books. It is a must with me, as I am ALWAYS going a hundred miles an hour. It totally is a different experience but not necessarily a negative one. A bad narrator can ruin a good book, but when you find a good narrator, it can totally blow your mind, I think more so than if I were to read the print. I can say whole-heartedly that audio books changed my life.

    1. I want you to knowthat I Googled Simon Vance before I wrote this just to hear what all the fuss was about. His voice is dreamy! But, I think I’d be in la la land listening to him. I’d much rather him whisper sweet nothings into my ear.

  12. I am an avid audiobook fan even though I was once an elitist and thought them “unworthy.” It was actually while I was teaching high school English that I started to appreciate their value. My junior-level students were not functioning reading-wise at a junior level, so trying to learn about story elements was difficult. When they were reading books they were struggling over pronunciations and definitions. But if you take that barrier out, they can tell you about character development, setting, plotting techniques, foreshadowing, literary devices, etc., etc. They can also start to pick up on signals for inflection, pauses, volume adjustments, etc. Otherwise to them, everything is just flat monotone.

    Usually I have a print book and an audio book going on at the same time. To me the most important element of either is the story. I process the stories exactly the same way. I think about the characters and their relationships to one another, their relationships to their environments, how the author has developed the plot. If I’m reading a print book that adds in the exercise of identifying the words myself. If I’m listening to an audio book, I’m usually doing some other exercise: crafting, driving, housework, the treadmill, etc.

    Not all audio books are created equal. Not all audio books are equal in the eyes of every person. My very good friend loves a narrator who grates on my last nerve, and the reason is that he interprets closer to what my friend interprets and not anywhere near what I interpret. So it does require a good match in author, narrator AND reader/listener.

    Having difficulty with ADD myself, I’ve found audiobooks to minimize my distractions because I put headphones on and tune all other audio distractions out. Or I pop it in the car radio and can focus my eyes and reflexes on driving while my ears process the story.

    Sometimes we forget that we learned to love stories by having them read to us. We learned to love reading by having those stories read to us. And some of the stories, if they are old enough, are here because people passed them along, not through print but through word of mouth.

    1. What you said there at the end is very true. I remember reading stories to my kids when they were really little. They’d enjoy it but they would also look to me for a reaction. Like, okay… how am I supposed to feel? Then they’d mimic my expression 🙂 Maybe the answer is having my own, personal reader right there in the room. LOL.

  13. NO! Audio books are a perfectly worthwhile thing for those who enjoy that kind of thing, but no way is it reading.

    Related to audiobooks about a year ago I came up with an idea for a scene in a movie, maybe a Christopher Guest mockumentary, about a failed businessman who had invested his life savings in a company that was producing transcripts of audiobooks so they would be accessible to the deaf.

  14. Ok, we ran out of reply options on the above comment (haha) but to answer your question, a learner who learns by doing is typically called a kinesthetic learner. There are three styles of learning: visual, audio, and kinesthetic.

    If you’re interested, here’s a link to help you figure out what your best learning style is:

    For parents, I think it’s always good for them to know this about their children so that when they are having conversations with the educators they can be an advocate for their child.

  15. My first instict is to say that listening to an audiobook is not *reading*. I do feel a little silly weighing in here though, because my experience with audiobooks is limited and sporadic. I want to make clear that I don’t believe audiobooks are any less “worthy” or somehow they “don’t count”. They do.

    Anyway, the audiobooks I have had in the past were limited almost exclusively to comedy writers (Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres). Because I’m such a huge fan of stand-up, for me it was a natural choice to pick up their books in audio instead of printed form.

    However, I am attempting to listen to Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth”, and I have to say I’m a little sorry that I have the audio version. I was excited to try the audio version at first, because I figured that a sweeping historical fiction book might lend itself beautifully to an audio version. For me, it just doesn’t. I normally have no problem reading epically long historical fiction titles, but with “Pillars”, I keep falling asleep. I can’t decide if it’s because of the narrator’s voice or if it’s because the story is boring. I’m inclined to lay the blame at the narrator’s feet. The voice is just too soothing and I can barely keep my eyes open.

    1. Even witha great narrator I find myself falling alseep. It’s like “doing the exercise” or “watching someone do the exercise.” Readinggives you more of a workout. At least in my opinion it does!

  16. I can’t make heads or tails of this question . . . like you, when I listen to an audiobook, I count it in my stats, but I can’t decide whether it is really “reading” or not. I am no help!

    1. I know. I wanna say “no” but I hestitate because I do count it in my stats when I listen to one. I also don’t want to sound too snobby by saying one form is more worthy than another but I am leaning towards no…listening to a book is not reading.

  17. Is it really important whether one considers listening to audiobooks reading or not? Not to totally hijack the point, but why do we have to label it one or the other? I tend to think that whatever gets people into the written word is all good.

    Personally, I tend to zone out on audiobooks and have to back up, so they don’t really work for me. When I am a captive audience they are great though, like on a car trip.

    1. I don’t know. I suppose it’s not important to put a label on it. I was hoping an author or two would weigh in because I sometimes wonder how they feel about audio books. When they write a book, do they consider how it will sound if read out loud? I think some authors that write thriller/suspense probably do, considering that that genre is what seems to work best in audio format.

      1. Hey there Ti,
        Great post, and I love all these comments. I work for AudioFile Magazine, an audiobook review publication, and I’ve interviewed a lot of authors who not only love audiobooks, but who specifically think about how their words would sound if read out-loud. I, for one, think that enhances their writing, since the “flow” for readers is so closely related to how it sounds in our heads when we’re reading it (which is based on how it actually sounds spoken). Can’t wait to wade through the rest of these comments! 🙂

  18. Absolutely they should be counted. I find the key for full enjoyment of an audio book is an excellent reader, and a story that does not have too many characters. I’ve listened to over 30 this year and I have counted them…they were all unabridged.

  19. I’m not a big audio book person … but I think it “counts” as having “read” a book. I don’t know about time-saving though. I always feel I can read a book faster than I can listen to it.

  20. Great question! This just came up in discussion for me regarding The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. It is notorious for being difficult to read, especially the open chapter, which is commonly referred to as being the chapter narrated by the idiot. I wanted to puzzle through it myself. I was determined to experience it the way the author intended, bit by bit, truth by truth. Someone else listened to an audio version of it. There wasn’t much anything to puzzle through in that way since the dialogue alternated between many different voices, young and old, male and female. It was definitely not the same experience.

    1. Faulkner is a good example because audio books were not even around when he wrote The Sound and the Fury. His writing was meant to be read…picked apart if you will.

  21. I listen to audiobooks while driving, cooking, running errands, etc. I get through 1-2 every couple of weeks. There is no way I would be willing to listen solely to audio, but I do enjoy them for when I’m doing other things!

  22. I’d actually argue that audiobooks can be *more* like reading than actual reading. When I’m reading a book, it’s rare that I read every word, probably as a lingering habit of speed-reading… even when I’m trying to be careful and slow, my eyes will still skip over bits of description in search for the action verbs and dialogue. With an audiobook, there’s no skipping over anything, and even though I do zone out occasionally, there’s more of a chance that I’ll hear every word.

  23. It’s not the same, but I count the audiobooks in my stats because even if I’m hearing the words I’m still processing them and the story. For me it’s been a good way to hone my listening skills because I’ve always been someone who is more of a visual learner. I think audiobooks would be especially good for stories that were meant to be told out loud, like the older epic poems, or maybe the Arabian Nights.

    The reason I love audiobooks the most is that I can listen to them while I’m cleaning or driving – doing activities where I’d normally not be able to read. For that reason my audiobooks are usually chosen by me entirely for fun. I’ve re-read several books this year that way.

  24. It took me a while to admit to listening – I thought people would think I’m a fraud too so I completely understand your initial thought. I didn’t start listening to books until last summer and now I’m lost without a book to listen to.

    Some of my favorite books are audio selections. I also think it’s interesting to hear that someone didn’t care for a book, and it’s my favorite (ie: Her Fearful Symmetry). I loved this one but just yesterday I had a second person in two weeks say they didn’t like it all that much.

    1. I would never consider you, or any other audio book listener a fraud. My initial reaction to what the club member said, after I’ve thought about it awhile, really has more to do with me thinking audio books aren’t that well done or that they someone don’t do the written word justice. Oh and trust me, when the club member said that it’s not like I rolled my eyes or anything, it just struck me as odd.

  25. Oooh, just thought of another example, but this one is a plug for the audio. One of my favorite books, An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, was one I listened to before I read it. The author’s humanity and gentleness really came out in that reading, and it had me in tears.

  26. Audiobooks are reading. Let me say that I am not really an audiobook listener because I am more of a visual and tactile/kinesthetic learner. However, there are people who are auditory learners and absorb books better by listening. I have a few friends like this.

    I also remember as a kid that there was this amazing storyteller named Joe Hayes that used to come to school once a year and tell the stories that he wrote and also told oral legends. I thought it was a cool way to get kids interested in reading–it definitely piqued my interest. Before the invention of paper, most stories were passed through spoken word (and also not many could read). Many of the stories we read now are legends passed down through time. So no, I don’t have an issue with people listening to audiobooks. I’m actually listening to Middlemarch by George Eliot and reading along in the book at the same time because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten much out of the book.

  27. Listening to a book is absolutely reading it, just in a different form. I think a lot of the people who don’t think they are the same and complain about how much they’ve missed haven’t fully trained their brains to listening, and just assume that if they can read they can listen to a book just as well and, since they get less out of it, listening must be inferior to reading. Listening to a book is a skill that needs to be learned just like reading is a skill that needs to be learned. As to the points that the teachers mentioned earlier, I’d say listening that includes a lot of zoning out is very comparable to the way a lot of children read when they are young, purely decoding and not actually taking in meaning. There are many listeners who just allow the words to wash over them and similarly don’t take in much or any meaning. Just like we had to learn to find meaning in the printed words on the page, we have to actually learn to find the meaning in the words we hear, it is really its own sort of literacy.

    Unlike with visual reading you can, of course, get by in life fairly easily without increasing your auditory literacy, but I do think that the cultivation of this skill helps you become a better listener in general, I’ve certainly noticed an improvement in my day-to-day listening skills since I began listening to audiobooks more often.

    1. You brought up some wonderful points. This has been a great discussion. It’s opened my mind a bit. I think I may be one of those that hasn’t acquired the auditory skills you mentioned in your comment. I consider myself a great listener when someone is sitting in front of me, but listening to a voice on tape is quite different.

      1. It is definitely an added level of difficulty to listen to someone without making visual contact! Even the best facea-to-face listeners need to train themselves to do that well, I think. And then being able to do that also helps the f2f listening in those who need it.

  28. I’m with Jen and everyone else who consider audiobooks reading. It very much is. In some ways I remember the audiobooks I’ve read even better than books I’ve read in print because I’ve got the added audio to my memories. While I wouldn’t read every book via audio, it’s a way to get extra reading into my day. Right now I’m listening to a lot of huge books on audio. That allows me to get to some chunksters without “clogging” up my print reading time.

    I once would have said that audiobooks didn’t “count.” That was before I gave it a try. I found that it’s easy to dismiss something when you don’t understand it. At the very least, it should bring back memories of your parents and teachers reading to you when you were young.

    1. Perhaps if I listened to them outside of the car, it would be different. Driving in Los Angeles requires all of my attention. I find that I never have a good experience with audio books while in the car.

  29. I don’t really consider it “reading” when I listen to a book. No more than I would consider myself “reading” music when I listen to it on the radio. I do count them on my reading stats because I have taken the time to be with the story. But I agree that the reader can great effect my appreciation and interpretation of a book. There have certainly been books I listened to that I wish I would have read.

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