On reading audiobooks

Listening to books
Listening to books

The headline originally said “Audibook”, which is probably an interesting read, but no. No books made from a TT here. The real focus will be on reading, or rather, consuming audiobooks. And apparently its a contentious topic for some people. “Its not reading” is a common claim seeming to indicate that its a lesser form of consumption or maybe cheapens the reading experience or maybe even reading for dummies. So I sat down and considered it. Not that its for dummies, but how audiobooks differ from paper books in very real ways and in less obvious ways.

 It could be argued that reading is inherently a visual experience. Whether on a page or a screen, when you are engage visually with a piece of writing, it is processed in a different part of brain than audio. Audio, as an experience, is processed elsewhere. You can read more about that here. I am no brain scientist, but that also correlates with the different word use and stylistic changes between written and spoken languages, which is also processed in different parts of the brain. Quick overview here. So, is consuming audiobooks still a form of reading? Well, yes it is and no it isn’t. Engagement with the content is just different, but if you want to be precise then the answer is no, since listening is not looking. In less anal pedantic circles, we might find a more nuanced look at the different ways of consuming content.

They are an active versus a passive way of consuming

Reading a book forces you to focus on one thing and actively generate meaning when engaging with the content. You are looking through the pages and creating the “voice” of the book. In many ways, the initial perception ofany given work is coloured by the voice the reader gives it, which is why some books are perceived very differently by different people. Inside my head I may have a Morgan Freeman voice giving it that smooth buttery feel, while you may have Ted from accounting, whose monotone voice would lull a cat to death. Listening to an audiobook is inherently passive. You don’t engage in a conversation with the narrator and get a response (if we get sufficiently advanced AI that might change but would that still be a book?). The narrator sets the tone, speaks the words, performs the piece. Regardless of his or her skills, you end up being merely a recipient. Naturally this frees you up to do other things, which might also distract you from the performance.

The content itself has different properties

To read a bit of written text is engaging with something physical, something you can reach out and touch. It’s there and I can hand it to someone else. I can scribble on the margins (or the screen, but that’s mere folly), underline words or phrases, etc. It has a sense of permanence to it. Audiobooks do not. The content becomes ineffable. Untouchable. The narrator’s voice flows through the speaker and then disappears. Re-reading a line in a book is a matter of moving eyeballs (or fingers when it comes to Braille) to the correct line and reading it again. An audiobook requires you to rewind and replay the audio, but the performance is still sound. It’ll be there, and then gone. Does it reduce the value of the book in any way? Maybe, but it also adds layers depending on the preferred format. My inner voice can generate a variety of different situations or feels for a text, some wrong or irrelevant compared to the author’s intent, while a talented voice actor can add texture that makes a character feel more well-rounded and more real.

You might not learn the same way I do

Everyone is different and comfortable with different types of learning. Whether you are a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner (or any combination of the three), the way you prefer to engage with a content will differ from others. My enjoyment of Morgan Freemans reading of Follow the Drinking Gourd might be impossible for you. As an auditory learner, you might enjoy his voice, but won’t actually hear the meaning behind the words.  Similarly, people who find it hard to engage with a written text for an extended period, may have little to no trouble with a spoken word performance of the same text. The kinesthetic learner might only engage fully with a piece, if they take notes every 30 seconds, since their method learning is based on “doing”.

Well, I like it my way

In the end, people are just have different preferences. Different people, different preferences. Some people don’t like one type of consumption, some are purists and feel one method is superior to the other. I enjoy both forms.When I’m running or doing routine tasks with no real engagement, I like to have an audiobook running. Otherwise it’s the Kindle. I consider both methods of consumption reading, but regard my engagement with the content different. If I’m looking to be entertained (or distracted when it comes to doing the washing up), then audiobooks are my no. 1 choice. If it’s research or delving deeper into a text, I’m partial to the written form due to its permanence. And I can write on it.

But what do you think? Are audiobooks a form of reading, or is it a glorified form of radio theatre?  Let me know.

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