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Books on tape is or isn't reading?
February 2, 2008 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Is a person actually reading books if they are able to read books but only listen to books on tape because their lifestyle is too busy?

I was visiting my friend's house last week and she told me that her husband was thrilled with himself because he read something like three hundred novels last year. As I recalled to my friend, "gee I couldn't even get through a couple books last year I was so busy" et cetera, she said, "oh well he listens to them on tape"....I didn't know what to say but if I were to listen to a book on tape and then tell everybody I read the book, I'd feel kind of like I was cheating. I would certainly listen to books on tape rather than read them because my lifestyle is so busy and demanding, but I'd feel funny about expecting credit for actually reading the damn books. Does anyone else know what I mean? With eye vision problems aside, isn't it more work to actually read a book than it is to listen to one while one is at work or jogging or driving or whatever?
posted by mamaraks to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is 'reading' the act itself? or the knowledge gained from it?

If you ask me, its the latter.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:03 PM on February 2, 2008


Second TheOtherGuy, it's not the "how", it's what you retain.. I find that when I listen to podcasts/audiobooks I can get distracted way easier than if I was reading the same information.
posted by aeighty at 3:06 PM on February 2, 2008


There's a more significant aspect to your question that you didn't mention. Books on tape (or CD or MP3) are often abridged, because reading the entire book would take forever, and span loads of tapes/discs/Gigs/etc. If your friend's husband is making it through 300 a year, then I strongly suspect that they're abridged.

So then your question is more along the lines of: "Is reading the Reader's Digest version of a book the same as reading the original?" To which my answer is an emphatic "no."

But who's keeping score, really?
posted by mumkin at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I find that I don't always absorb as much from books that I listen to rather than ones I read. I think it has something to do with 1)I frequently go back and forth in books to re-read things that are important at the point that I'm reading, which is hard to do with audio books, and 2) I feel like I can do other things while I'm listening, so I'm not paying as much attention, which is the whole point of audio books, amirite?

That said, you can't really tell, maybe he is really just sitting there and listening to them fully. That counts.
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2008


I'm sorry, I don't quite understand the question that you're trying to get answered here. You just sound pissed off that someone enjoys audiobooks and you want to believe it doesn't count as 'real' reading.

I read faster than anyone can read a book out loud, so time-wise for me reading a book is less work than listening to one. Regardless, I would figure 'properly reading a book' is directly proportional to how much you enjoy the book, regardless of format. Not how much effort you expend to enjoy it.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:11 PM on February 2, 2008


These may also be novels of the Robin Cook variety, and thus don't get nearly as many points as real books by Pynchon and Gaddis. So it's a complicated rubric.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:15 PM on February 2, 2008


I've argued all my life that the story means more than the delivery systems involved (and that includes the writer). I have never been able to understand the prejudice some people seem to feel about recorded books, for instance. Not only are good stories better when they are told out loud; bad stories declare themselves almost at once, because the spoken word is merciless.

Steven King
Of course, I think the people who will strongly argue for the primacy of the act of reading the printed word over listening to it are likely to dismiss King.
posted by Good Brain at 3:16 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


My opinion: I don't think listening to books on tape as you commute to work, fighting traffic, drinking your coffee, muting the car stereo when you answer your mobile counts. I've tried Audible.com during my commute. Doesn't work for me, but I'm not everyone.

Or maybe he's sitting in an easy chair with his feet up, in front of the fireplace, and devoting his whole attention to the narration. What's the harm in that?

300 a year seems like he has them on ALL the time, almost as background. But like mumkin said, who's keeping score?
posted by uaudio at 3:19 PM on February 2, 2008


Listing to a book on tape is not the same as reading a book. Different skills are involved.

But, really, who's counting?
posted by Amizu at 3:20 PM on February 2, 2008


Yeah, I'm going to come down on the side of "not the same thing." It may be worthwhile but it isn't reading just as looking at a painting isn't the same thing as listening to music. Different parts of the brain and all that.
posted by Justinian at 3:25 PM on February 2, 2008


With eye vision problems aside, isn't it more work to actually read a book than it is to listen to one while one is at work or jogging or driving or whatever?

Well, "eye vision problems" sort of define the answer right there. You can't say, I don't think, that the way blind people read isn't really reading, can you? There are people who read books with their eyes while on treadmills or on public transportation or wherever and there are people who listen to them on their ipods. Some people read 1000 words a minute and some read 100. So, relative effort expended reading varies a lot even between eyeball-readers. I do agree totally that reading an abridged book is not the same as reading an unabridged book, in whatever format you choose to do that in.

I keep a booklist and I keep track of what I read. I include anything that's not abridged whether it's actually on tape/cd/mp3/paper doesn't matter. I also count graphic novels in my list because I read them and they help me at work (I'm sort of a roving librarian type, as well as working here at MeFi). So I think there are a lot of questions implicit in your question.

- is reading wiht your eyes more work than reading with your ears? I don't think so, but you can multitask better, for sure. If you don't believe in multitasking then your answer to this question would be different
- is your friend husband secretly not reading as much as he says he is? Maybe?
- what does it mean to get "credit" for reading a book now that we're all adults?

For what it's worth, I'm a librarian and I think books on tape count, so long as they are unabridged. I mean they even count if they're abridged but they count as mumkin says.
posted by jessamyn at 3:27 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I didn't know what to say but if I were to listen to a book on tape and then tell everybody I read the book, I'd feel kind of like I was cheating. I would certainly listen to books on tape rather than read them because my lifestyle is so busy and demanding, but I'd feel funny about expecting credit for actually reading the damn books.

If someone wanted to have a discussion about a book, but you had read the paperback and they had listened to the audiobook, would you be able to have a conversation about the book? Sure. The way that the words get into your head is less important than understanding what the words mean and remembering the words after you are finished.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:36 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with Jessamyn, and I am a librarian who absolutely hates listening to books on tape. They still stimulate the mind and the imagination, and while the reader is a performer, you are still absorbing the text.

I wish I could enjoy them. It would make my morning subway ride a lot nicer.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:38 PM on February 2, 2008


I guess I wouldn't say "reading" a book if I had listened to it; I would say "listened" just for accuracy. But jessamyn has it: one doesn't count for more than another -- they just take different sets of skills and amounts of time, and perhaps create somewhat different experiences since they use different senses and brain chemistry. It's certainly possible to read passively without real engagement whether using eyes, ears or fingertips. Engaged digestion of a text via any delivery method is work.

What I wonder about is the "thrilled with himself" part. Is the guy just pleased that he's using his downtime more productively than pissing it away on talk radio or something? Or is Johnny Brainiac boasting about how many books he can read? If so, a) he's kind of a tool and b) he should be more forthcoming about his method and whether the books are abridged.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:43 PM on February 2, 2008


Sometimes I listen carefully to an audiobook, skipping back to any parts I miss if something else captures my attention. I do this when I'm doing some highly mechanical task that requires little or no concentration - some of the repetitive tasks I have at work, walking to and from work, etc. The aubdiobook commands a high proportion of my attention and I absorb more than, say, if I take a real book to bed with me when I'm drunk. I'd say that qualifies as reading.
Other times I have an audiobook on more in the background whilst my attention is more on something else. I'm more likely to do this with podcasts or musics, but sometimes if the narrator has a particularly mellifluous voice of the subject matter is particularly unengaging, an audiobook will be on in the background, but I wouldn't claim to have read it.
The answer to your question, from my perspective, is clearly and unambiguously "it depends".
Clearly there are plenty of people around who read, or claim to read, books without understanding or retaining any of their contents. How about those speed-readers who review dozens of books for Amazon per day? Or, you know, stupid people. It's definitely possible to listen to an audiobook and have 'read' it in a more real sense than those people with their paper books.
(I would like to venture that the people who say that you can't get the same experience from an audiobook as a paper one are just looking at the pictures anyway).
posted by nowonmai at 4:31 PM on February 2, 2008


Books are books, whatever the medium. Colloquially "reading" is extracting the meaning from books.

But reading and listening are not quite the same thing. That is not to say that listen is worse than reading it's just different and sometimes suited to different things. Indeed there is writing for the eye and writing for the ear; some things sound better out loud, and some are almost incomprehensible (try listening to a math textbook).

And then again, not all reading is the same. If you follow the Mortimer Adler school of reading as expressed in How to Read a Book, you don't leave one sentence to go on to the next until you have fully understood it in great depth. Perfect for philosophy, not so good for Jackie Collins.

Counting the number of books you read for anything but your own personal amusement is silly. If you think otherwise you will start to think that the person who reads every volume of the Baby-sitters' Club has read more than someone who reads all of Dickens.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:50 PM on February 2, 2008


In last year since I had an MP3, in between catching up on podcasts, I've listened to several classic novels whilst out walking, travelling or doing boring stuff around the house... and I feel I've got as much out of them as reading 'normally'. In fact I can probably more vividly recall sections from them than from the, many, other books I read conventionally.

Oh and to read 300 novels he'd have to listening, all day every day, unless they are abridged. Next up for me is Moby Dick and that, I've just checked, is around 24 hrs (OK that's a long 'un but you get the idea)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:56 PM on February 2, 2008


Maybe I'm being too literal minded, but I think this is an unanswerable question. Do audiobooks count as books? To whom?

There's no such thing as things that cosmically count. Counting isn't a law of physics. Things can only count to people. So what are you asking?

Are you asking if MOST people consider audiobooks to be books? If so, I suspect you're out of luck. I doubt there has been any sort of definitive survey.

Are you asking whether most literature professors count audiobooks as books? Most authors? Most librarians? Me?

I can answer that last one. Yes. I "read" about two books a week. One of them, I read with my eyes; the other I listen to. After I'm done, I often have a hard time remembering whether I read it or listened to it. I liked "The Omnivore's Dilemma," but did I read it or listen to it? I have no idea. But I do remember many details from the book. As-far-as I can tell, I recall details from audiobooks and text books at about the same rate. I totally agree with King: it's not the method of deliver; it's the story.

I'm saddened that the O.P. and his friends seem more interested in some kind of high score than in stories. If someone tells me he's read 400 books this year, I'm going to be less interest in how he read them than what he learned and what recommendations he can make.
posted by grumblebee at 5:03 PM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


If listening to a book being read is the same as reading a book, I had 'read' a thousand books before I learned to read.
posted by dawson at 5:31 PM on February 2, 2008


on another hand (there are more than two here it seems) I have a friend of nearly 20 years who is blind. I'm sure he would take issue with the 'hearing is not reading' argument. The fingertips become calloused over time so that one will read with the tip of the tongue. He mostly uses a scanner that 'reads' the book far faster than most people could understand. Like JFK on 75rpm. The internet and electronics in general has been a tremendous blessing for the sight impaired. But somehow, to me, that's a different question altogether.
posted by dawson at 5:53 PM on February 2, 2008


Mostly the same, but I do understand what you're saying. If this guy is being sort of a jerk about it, start a friendly discussion about some book you both "read". You'll find out pretty quickly what his reading comprehension is.
posted by gjc at 5:58 PM on February 2, 2008


Do audio books "count"?

Well, if he's going for a Super Reader Medal at my daughter's grade school, he would have beat all of third grade by their standards. Good on him. He deserves a free kid-sized ice cream cone at McDonald's, but only with an additional purchase.
posted by Gucky at 6:06 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think you're trying to jump to an automatic conclusion without knowing enough about it. Listening to a book isn't necessarily any less valid, but I agree with other people who've said that it'd be easier to be distracted if you're listening to it while doing something else.

On a bit of a tangent, the only audio book I've ever read/heard is Robinson Crusoe, and I listened to it with two friends on a road trip. It was wonderful to be hearing it together, and now we've got a whole bunch of little private jokes from sharing that experience- you can't do that by reading a book.
posted by twirlypen at 6:22 PM on February 2, 2008


I think it should count. I recently read some articles on children and stories. Apparently, if you tell stories to children -- as opposed to showing them the book -- they develop stronger executive function.
posted by acoutu at 6:52 PM on February 2, 2008


There's nothing wrong with audio books as such, but it's hardly reading. For one, you don't need to know how to read to enjoy them. You lose a lot of the benefits from actual reading - for instance, the more one reads, the greater one's spelling ability tends to be . . . not to mention the different ways one processes grammatical concepts, vocabulary and so on through actual reading. When one reads, they're hearing what's written in their own heads, as well as seeing it expressed visually . . . audio books provide only half of that. Not to mention many other factors - audio books go at one "speed," in actually reading, one can adjust as needed to comprehend, luxuriate in the words, etc.

Audio books are no more reading than listening to lyrically-intense music or listening to NPR or Rush Limbaugh, aside from relative levels of scriptedness. I'm sure one can get a lot out of fine literature via audiobooks, but audiobooks tend to be produced in direct proportion to the likelihood of commercial possibilities and they tend to avoid works rich in numbers and statistic, certain genres and nearly anything with a lot of footnotes.

Beyond all that, reading takes more effort and a different set of skills. It requires a skill set that can be mastered only through time and effort, and one that rewards the reader with levels of pleasure and interaction and knowledge acquisition that are decidedly different when only "listening." I read mostly in English, though it's not my native language and thus is more difficult for me than most Americans - especially when the English is specialized or archaic or philosophical or academic in nature. But to me, the difference is worthwhile.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with audio books . . . but you're not reading. And I'm a little surprised to learn - in the way that one learns something each day - the meaning in English of "to read" would be so vague that so many people could consider listening to audio books "reading." Such a general application of the verb "read" would sound pretty silly in many other languages.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:55 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


a few relevant articles from the NYT, this thread on LibraryThing and on MeFi several years ago...
posted by dawson at 7:39 PM on February 2, 2008


I'd feel funny about expecting credit for actually reading the damn books

I read a lot. Not audiobooks so much, I tend to be more of a music guy in the car/on the train, but paper books, ebooks, magazines, graphic novels...

I think the last time I expected 'credit' for reading anything was when I actually got a grade on a book report.

That said, I'm ot sure I'd count listening to an audiobook as 'reading the book', but it IS enjoying the story, and in the end isn't that what it's all about?
posted by pupdog at 8:04 PM on February 2, 2008


As I said, there's nothing wrong with audio books . . . but you're not reading. And I'm a little surprised to learn - in the way that one learns something each day - the meaning in English of "to read" would be so vague that so many people could consider listening to audio books "reading."

I would agree with you if we were talking about children, but I read print books for thirty years before ever trying an audiobook. When I listen to audiobooks now, I AM reading -- a very real sense. I see the words in my head; I enjoy the sentence-structure; etc. And I've gotten really good with the rewind function on my iPod. I'd say I'm now just as good at going back two paragraphs on my iPod as I am when I'm reading a print book. Sometimes I transcribe a paragraph for an audiobook into an email to a friend.

I agree that you use different parts of the brain to scan with your eyes than you do when you hear when your ears, and I suppose there should be two different words to describe these modes. But from my point-of-view, as a story-consumer, I don't much care about that. I just care about the story. As such, it's laborious for me to say, "two years ago, I read or listened-to a book called about dinosaurs" No one cares which senses I used to acquire the info -- or at least I can't imagine why they should care. So I just say, "I read a book about dinosaurs."

I also agree that audiobooks are more driven by market forces than print books. So what? When I want to read a book that's not available on audio, I buy the print version. And maybe I'm the only person who does this, but at times I'v bought both versions. That way, I can read the print version by day, and then switch to the audio version at night, once my eyes have grown too tired to continue reading, but my brain is still active enough to acquire information.

Maybe there should be a neutral word that means "received information from some version of a book."
posted by grumblebee at 8:17 PM on February 2, 2008


Most people use audiobooks in contexts where they're doing something else (driving, cleaning the house, etc.). I'd argue the lack of focus differentiates it from actual reading.
posted by electroboy at 8:18 PM on February 2, 2008


There are a a lot of different questions crammed into this one AskMe.

1. Books on tape is or isn't reading?
Of course listening isn't reading, but if what you're really asking is 'does it count?'... then yes.

2. I were to listen to a book on tape and then tell everybody I read the book, I'd feel kind of like I was cheating.
It's not cheating, but see 4 below.

3. I'd feel funny about expecting credit for actually reading the damn books.
You should expect credit.

4. Does anyone else know what I mean?
Sure. It's very hard to savor an audiobook... it's physically possible to rewind-relisten certain parts, but cumbersome and therefore unlikely. Also, with a paper book you can read a particular passage, sit back and reflect, and then carry on whereas if (when) this happens with an audiobook you risk missing the material that follows. The reader influences interpretation, etc. I think the important thing here is that reading a paper book is BEST, but audiobooks come in as a very close second.

5. isn't it more work to actually read a book than it is to listen to one while one is at work or jogging or driving or whatever?
Here's the thing... it's IMPOSSIBLE to read a book while one is at work or jogging or driving or whatever. So make sure you're counting in the factor that unless you incorporate audiobooks into time that you couldn't read paper books, you lose that 'reading' time altogether.

My personal opinion is that audiobooks are a critical tool to a person looking to pursue a literate life but lacking the luxury of multiple free hours every day to sit with a paper book. If you have plenty of time, then read. If you don't, then you're a fool not to make use of audiobooks if books matter to you in the first place. They are very important to me as I am lucky to find 2-3 hours a week for reading but can count on 7.5 hours of commuting every five workdays.

Also, totally unrelated to the question, a great work of literature read by a skilled voice actor can start teetering on the edge of being a work of art in it's own unique way and can be listened to with pride. George Guidall reading THE ILLIAD would be worthwhile no matter how many real books you could get to.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:29 PM on February 2, 2008


I really do see why this irritates you, but you aren't perturbed because one method is "more work" than the other. The issue at hand is really whether someone who has listened to an audio book has adequately absorbed what it is that they were "reading". Frankly, I think that this is a highly unlikely in the case of most books, unless they were completely diligent about it, as someone with visual impairment might be.

As others have mentioned, people generally use audio books because they cannot devote their full attention to the material at hand. The problem is that distracting events occur in the surrounding environment and you either have to rewind or accept that you missed 30 seconds of what it is that you were listening to. When this happens to me, I frequently find myself wondering what it was that was said while I was avoiding an accident or figuring out whether I'm at the right subway station all the while trying to absorb new material. If I'm reading a book, I'll frequently drop it to my lap and ponder interesting points or events that have come up. I really can't think of examples of books that I have read that weren't worthy of a bit of contemplation at points. This is simply not as "natural" with an audio book in the way that it is with a book.

Even if someone were an experienced audio book listener, life demands that you read things every day that are not available in audio book format. The act of reading is a skill that requires constant practice to improve and even maintain. The brain gets better at processing this man-made thing that we know as written language with experience. We all know how it is to stumble over a word only to realize that we have simply never seen how it was correctly spelled. This happens less frequently the more that one reads.

Finally, I would be very surprised if current and future research did not uncover a wealth of other benefits that actual reading imparted. That being said, our brains seem to love hearing other people verbally express ideas in ways that we ourselves wouldn't. I can also imagine a plethora of benefits offered by witnessing the way that another intelligent human vocalizes a written sentence. A healthy mix of both spoken and written word is probably best for the mind.
posted by hooves at 10:48 PM on February 2, 2008


No they are not the same thing. I agree with Dee Xtrovert.

Reading a Shakespeare play for instance is much different than watching it performed. In the latter case, you are absorbing the play but you are also absorbing a specific interpretation, a collusion among actors and directors and whatnot.

An audiobook falls along that scale too. It is not the book. It is someone reading the book. At a specific pace with a specific intonation. Did Dostoievski mean to make that statement sound so exclamatory as the narrator's interpretation. Who knows?

That the audiobook listener can have a deceptive conversation with someone who read the book is beside the point. In the same way that (people here would agree, I'm sure) someone who saw a movie based on Jane Austen did not "read the book" then neither did the the audiobook reader. The difference is only one of degree.
posted by vacapinta at 2:49 AM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I had no idea we were having a contest, and I would suggest to the OP that someone else's reading habits really have nothing to do with you and you should not waste any more thought on this.

Dawson mentioned kids "reading" books by having them read to them. I think it's actually a good analogy. My son who is 6 doesn't read well enough to read chapter books on his own, but he's listened to me or his dad read him My Side of the Mountain, The Book of Three, several of the Little House books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach--dozens of books. It's all in his head someplace. Does it not count unless he re-reads all those books to himself some day?

Heck, given that listening to an audio book takes more time, for most people, than reading it, I'd practically say someone should get more credit for being so interested in ideas that they devoted that much of their life to it.
posted by not that girl at 5:25 AM on February 3, 2008


When I was in graduate school (for literature, no less), I was constantly horrified by sloppy readers, people who really didn't read a text thoroughly and carefully. They just moved their eyes over the page and related what they saw to one of the few theories they understood.

There is no such thing as a perfect reader. Someone who brags about reading 300 books a year is obviously a blow hard. But I'd be careful about dismissing people who "read" audiobooks. Just because some uses his eyeballs doesn't make him an ideal reader.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:21 AM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just chiming in to agree wholeheartedly with not that girl's comment above. I read books far more often that I listen to audiobooks, but when I do listen to audiobooks, I choose them for what stories I would like to have read to me, and who I would like to have reading them, as if I were a little kid (perfect example -- Douglas Adams reading the Hitchhiker's Trilogy).
posted by somanyamys at 9:44 AM on February 4, 2008


...Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach--dozens of books. It's all in his head someplace. Does it not count unless he re-reads all those books to himself some day?

I had James and the Giant Peach read to me at about that age and it is one of the books I credit with helping to ignite my love of reading. But despite going on to read many other books, I never returned to that particular one. Did I read it?

This question is one about precision in language and the fact that "hearing" a book is not the same as "reading" a book. So, if someone asks me "Did you read JatGP as a kid?" I would answer "Actually, a teacher read it to me when I was 6. I love that book!"

Otherwise you're likely to get embarrasing followup questions like "Oh so you were reading books like that by the time you were 6!?" to which the answer would be "No, well, when I said I 'read' it, i meant my teacher read it to me."

It is not about any sort of "credit" but about being truthful and exact. In the original question, the wife had to clarify and she only had to do that because the husband was being imprecise. One can only assume he was being imprecise because he is aware that there is a distinction as well.
posted by vacapinta at 11:32 AM on February 4, 2008


Personally I read a ridiculous amount of books, like 2 a week, because I have a 2hour bus commute, and I cannot see how he can get through one audiobook a day. Unless, as mumkin said, they are abridged, in which case they don't count. I also agree that if they are "background music", you can't really absorb the information. However, if you listen to them while exercising or riding the bus/train, they count.
posted by herbaliser at 3:13 PM on February 4, 2008


It is not about any sort of "credit" but about being truthful and exact

I SO want to agree with that, and a big part of me does: I love specificity and truth. But am I the only person here who occasionally lies to simplify?

Let's say I go to a doctor, he tells me I have pneumonia and proscribes some antibiotics. Then I discover that, a month earlier, the doctor actually had his license revoked. It wasn't revoked because he was practicing bad medicine; it was revoked because he violated some non-medical rule: maybe something to do with finances. I don't know if a license can really be revoked for something like that, but for the sake of argument, let's say it can.

Anyway, my boss comes up to me and says, "You sounded really sick last week. Did the doctor figure out what was wrong?"

I can say, "Yes, he did. He said it was pneumonia and gave me some medicine." Or I can say, "Actually, it turns out the guy I went to isn't a doctor. He used to be one, but his license was revoked, and..."

That second version might be more interesting (and more truthful), but it's also gratuitous. Sometimes when trying to distill information into a useful form, it pays to simplify. Of course, there's a judgement call involved: I'm assuming that my boss doesn't care about the doctor's license. Maybe I'm wrong. But I'm probably right. By lying -- if this really counts as a lie -- I'm saving us both some trouble.

This is the ONLY reason I sometimes claim to have read books I've listened to. Someone says, "Have you read 'War and Peace?'" and I say "Yes."

I don't say, "Well, actually I listened to it as an audiobook," because I fear that will derail the conversation. That's the ONLY reason I lie. I want to talk about "War and Peace." But if I mention audiobooks, the conversation will likely turn into one about iPods and technology and listening vs. reading. Boring.

IF I had listened to an abridged version, I would never claim to have read the book. IF I listened to it while doing another activity (only paying partial attention), I would never claim to have read the book*. But I never listen that way. When I listen, I pay as much attention to the book as I do when I'm reading. I generally listen in the dark. In fact, I'm less distracted than when I'm reading and can see all sorts of distracting things out of the corner of my eye.

IF I recall fewer details when listening, I would also not claim to have read the book. But I've never noticed that. As someone who both reads and listens, I attest to equal recall with both methods.

Assuming I want to be 100% truthful, I would often have to have clunky conversations like this:

Someone: Have you read, "Carrie"?

Me: Well, I know the story really well. I either listened to it as an audiobook or I read it in print. I can't remember which.

Have you ever read George Orwell's advice to writers? He pushes them to be specific. But after listing several rules, he suggest that you break them rather that writing anything "barbarous." That last dialog is barbarous!

* way before iPods and audiobooks, I used to have to walk two miles to get to work. In order to make the walk interesting, I would bring along a book -- a print book -- and read it as I walked. The route wasn't particularly dangerous (not much traffic) and I knew it like the back of my hand, so I was able to walk and hold a book at the same time.

Maybe this wasn't so wise (I was young at the time), but I doubt anyone would claim I wasn't reading. (I still remember many of those books as formative reads.)

So I'm suspect of the critique of audiobooks as stories people don't pay full attention to. Sure, some people don't give audiobooks full attention. But some people just aren't attentive. That's not the audiobook's fault. I know plenty of print readers who skip and skim. It's much harder to do that with an audiobook. You're pretty much forced to listen to the whole thing, from beginning to end. Which is how I like it.
posted by grumblebee at 8:07 AM on February 5, 2008


Wow, are there ever a lot of interesting responses to my question! I just wanted to say that I don't think the amount of books one reads per year ought to be held as a 'contest' but it sure seemed like my friend's husband was keeping track of how many books he "read" (I don't remember the specific number, but the 300 part of it stuck with me) and yeah, I totally would have to assume that they were abridged versions. I should have asked but that would feel petty (as petty as keeping track of all the [abridged] versions of a book I listened to on tape). I have always felt that reading a book aloud to a five year-old counts as that child having read a book...it is all part of emergent literacy for them after all...but it is way different for an adult because well, they're adult for one thing. After having the conversation with my friend about her husband and all the books he was so happy to have consumed in 2007, it kind of left me feeling like I could be reading an episode of Seinfeld or something. I felt a little intellectually ripped off and didn't know what to say. It is all quite amusing in so many ways, and I don't mean to discount readers who listen on tape. I certainly have respect for people who read no matter which method they choose, but it's the keeping track of the unbelievable number and actually telling others about it that makes me chuckle. I also feel as though managing one's time well so that one can focus on reading a book is quite an accomplishment and that completing the process of reading a book is not just actually reading the book; it means something when a person feels something is important, so important, that they cut out the excess from their schedule so they may have the time to do an activity as mindful as reading a book.
posted by mamaraks at 11:01 AM on February 5, 2008


It fascinates me how people get attracted to specific mediums. I do it too, despite my claim that audiobooks can give the same benefits as text books.

Some of you have made strong arguments about the limitations of audiobooks, but I wonder what your feelings would be if someone proved to you that all your objections were unfounded.

Even though you strongly feel they ARE founded, for the sake of argument, imagine that someone proved to you that the details of audiobooks stick in listeners' minds as tightly as those from text books; imagine he also proved that audiobooks gave the mind as rigorous a workout as print books do; etc. Would you still have an objection to audiobooks, maybe one you couldn't quite put into words but felt all the same?

Maybe some of you are so rational that you wouldn't. But I bet many of you would, and I think that's natural. I know that people objected to paperbacks as not being "real books" when they first came out. (I know, I know, a paperback still involves reading text on a page, while an audiobook is something categorically different. Agreed. I'm talking emotion here; not logic.)

I've read that people objected to printed books, when the world switched over to them from hand-written texts. And I'm betting there was an outcry against the move from oral to written text (sort of a reverse of this thread) and an outcry against clay tablets giving way to papyrus. I certainly know many people, today, who feel strongly that eBooks aren't books.

I can't connect to most of the specifics here, but I can map them onto the way I feel about going to the cinema. There's a ritualistic aspect to it that's a key part of the experience for me: the ticket, the seats, the popcorn, the lights dimming... I kind of want to say that a DVD is not a movie. That's stupid, I know. But still, the feeling persists.

And I love the feel of a bound book. The smell of the paper, the glue. It's not the story, and ultimately the story is what's important to me, but I'd be lying if I claimed to be untouched by the ritualist aspects of reading. None of which exist with audiobooks. (Or, rather, audiobooks have different rituals. I've been listening to books almost exclusively from audible.com, and after years of doing so, I get a warm feeling when, before the book starts, a confident voice says, "This is audible!")

I also know that people -- me included -- get so attached to ritual that it seems like law. If a medium doesn't include the ritual, "then it's not the genuine article, dammit!" Rationally, I can say, "a DVD is not a movie TO ME, but it may be to you," and on some level, I know that's true. But that's not how it feels. It feels like -- dammit -- a DVD just ISN'T a movie, in some cosmic sense.

I'm not accusing anyone here (except myself) of being sentimental or irrational. I'm just suggesting that rituals surrounding a medium are important to many people, and that discussions such as this would be incomplete with no mention of them.
posted by grumblebee at 11:40 AM on February 5, 2008


At a staged reading of his newest works several weeks ago, David Sedaris brought this up. He listens to books on tape, and thought it was bizarre/stupid when people apologized by saying, "Oh yeah, well, but I listened to it on TAPE. Who cares?"
posted by JJ Jenkins at 8:14 PM on February 17, 2008


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