Are traditional books inherently better than audio books?
May 25, 2005 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Books v Audio Books: What is the unique value of the work of reading?

I read this NYT article today and it got me thinking. I sifted the archives here and read these threads. I'm wondering whether all the mental calisthenics we go through when we read a book such as word recognition and parsing phrases and identifying syntactical tropes and the whole eye-brain circuitry are actually overrated.
If it's accepted that this reading 'work' is a cognitively good exercise, are we just as well off indulging the practise by reading on the internet and a newspaper and processing larger pieces like novels or texts by simply hearing them through audio books and thereby allowing the possibility of increasing the input?
Are the cognitive processes of plowing through some literary work in a regular book format necessary or very important to fully appreciate a particular work? Is it true sometimes and not others? How, apart from perhaps fortifying the memory, is this so?
Who has tried audio books and found them lacking (leaving aside the quality of the narrator and perhaps the practicalities of mp3/discman troubles) and if so why? Who has read AND listened to the same work and what say you as to the benefits or detractions of each?
I guess I'm mostly looking at the cognition qualities -- the different processes we go through in reading and in listening and their associated positives/negatives. I hope this is relatively clear and not coming across like a survey.
And if I'm giving the impression that I have a preformed opinion, that's not so. I'm just trying to work it out.
posted by peacay to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by caddis at 10:12 PM on May 25, 2005

I have a very different experience of a book depending on whether I read it or listen to it. Maybe I've developed more synapses in the part of my brain responsible for decoding written text, but when I read it I can feel like I'm actually a part of a story. I can imagine it with all my senses: sights, sounds, smells and all. I don't get that with audiobooks, the stories seem very two-dimensional. Also, I read much faster than the spoken word so listening to a story takes considerably longer.
posted by cali at 10:18 PM on May 25, 2005

I think this is an interesting question. I don't have time to write a lot now, but off the top of my head:

I have listened to audiobooks and read a lot of books; I read books 'professionally' now as a grad student. What's clear to me:

1. Audiobooks and 'traditional' books are quite different media. The 'content' delivered by the two media are extremely different. For example, there is far more visualization going on in my head when reading vs. when listening (see, for example, Elaine Scarry's Dreaming by the Book for more on visualization, 'mental pictures,' and reading.)

2. There are certain formal properties to the act of reading a novel, for example, that do not exist for audiobooks. When I read a book, my internal voice must 'act' all of the parts; I must 'say' and 'think' all of the speech and thought in the book. I am co-opted in this way by the book. I am responsible for the affect of the text. In the audiobook format the opposite is true; I am a passive listener. For example (as a professor pointed out to me recently), look at the opening lines of Notes From Underground. Reading them yourself in your head is different from hearing them read to you. The 'I' is different. (So: for reasons 1 and 2, I say that there are real reasons to read books instead of listening.)

3. Obviously some people learn better in the auditory modality, others in the visual; I'm sure this plays into it.

4. Finally, reading is definitely an invention--one good description I'm come across is 'technology of the intellect.' Before reading people were more verbal; for example, early novels (Rousseau, to take one author) were often read aloud within the household; Dickens was very often a verbal, rather than written, experience. One books were exclusively written, habits of composition changed substantially. So there is a big difference depending on what you're listening to: Homer? Dickens? Joyce? Very different.

Personally, I can't use audiobooks. I need to be able to go back; to sound the words out for myself when a phrase or line strikes me; to feel the rhythm of the words internally as I read them; to understand the emotions communicated by acting out the words myself. I think audiobooks are a great thing, since they make reading easier for busy people; but I would always prefer to read if I had the time.
posted by josh at 10:31 PM on May 25, 2005

I'm a slow reader, very high retention. I can read fast, but hate it. Even so, I read faster than I can listen, much of the time. However, as josh points out, sometimes you have to read a paragraph a couple times. There are times when you slow down to savour every nuance. This isn't practical with an audio book.

Of course, you can't read a book while driving! The only time I've used audio books was when driving cross-country, I found a place that rented audio books, and I could return them to a location far down the road. It was nice, yet I also like my own internal dialog when I drive distance.

It is certainly the case that visualization and immersion is far more complete when reading. There are things I've read which sometimes get confused with movies I've seen, my visualization is so intense! Funny, I can't even tell you what audio books I listened to.
posted by Goofyy at 10:52 PM on May 25, 2005

I love listening to audio books while driving. I am also in the situation of running a small business which sees me doing menial production work (sole employee!). While I'm doing this sort of repetitive and mind numbing work, I'll be listening to audio books.

While I agree that you can't get as full a sense of immersion as when reading, it's still pretty good. Of course, the fact that I am also doing other things reduces my concentration on the book, but I have experienced dozens, if not hundreds of stories this way, which I may not have otherwise managed to get the time to read.

I also found that listening to many audio books changed the way I read. My reading style used to be pretty quick, but now I find myself really sounding it out and picturing what's going on, taking on more of a spoken word pace even though I could read many times faster.
posted by tomble at 11:00 PM on May 25, 2005

Don't underestimate the amount of processing required to parse phonemes, etc. into sensible things. After all, OCR as a computational problem was solved far faster than Speech-to-text (still not perfect). Audio has a lower SNR compared to well-lit documents.

Humans have it easy with audio communications only because we've evolved specifically to enable that ability. Arguably without any further changes, we taught ourselves how to read and write. This lends further evidence to the conclusion that reading is just easier.

And remember, audio is linear. Yes you can rewind recordings, but not as easily as skipping your eye over the page, and I usually find it hard to 'adapt' to the new audio context, whereas changing places on the page seems easier. When reading a page there is a physical anchor which takes advantage of our spatial memory abilities. Marking and remembering positions in spoken conversations (for non-linear processing) just is not part of our evolution.

Since I seem to recall that people often restart reading sentences while reading, not having the ability to jump around might reduce comprehension.
posted by clord at 11:44 PM on May 25, 2005

Audiobooks put me to sleep, books I can read for 20 hours straight.

The work of reading helps keep the mind focused.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:49 PM on May 25, 2005

There's a lot that's been written about this topic, most importantly, Walter Ong's famous 'Orality and Literacy'. It's worth a glance, since it's the master work on the topic.

I've had to talk about speech/writing differences for my PhD work and have found that people get pretty passionate about defending the mode of their preference. But writing and speech are both cultural products. Both require processing (one visual, the other auditory). Neither is 'unmediated', as defenders of writing are fond of saying. Both have particular advantages and capacities that are missing in the other: you can create ordered tables and lists in writing, for example. I'd also point out that there's no evidence that visualization is better in one mode than in the other, contrary to what other people have said. In the end, there's no right or wrong to it-- it's all a matter of aesthetic choice as to which you prefer.

Personally, I love reading books and I love listening to them. I tend to retain quite a bit in both cases. I do find that it's easier for me to do multitask certain things while reading something visually (i.e. keep an eye on something simmering, listen for the doorbell), and easier to multitask other things while reading something aurally (i.e. work out at the gym, walk safely on the busy streets).

Generally, I like how audiobooks can fit into the little interstices of time in my day where books might not.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:02 AM on May 26, 2005

Texts can be exceedingly nonlinear. You see this in everything from choose-your-own-adventure stories to infinite jest (footnotes) to Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch or Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. As clord mentioned, audio, being linear, doesn't lend itself particularly well to this.
posted by juv3nal at 12:03 AM on May 26, 2005

Since I subscribed to Audible, getting one book per month and daily download of All Things Considered, I'm reading as much as I had before, but I'm also listening to a book a month. I'm listening to news on the radio as much as I was before, but I probably catch the news three times more often because it's downloaded on my Ipod. Reading is clearly better for stuff you want to really learn: it is so much easier to go back and forth, look back to something earlier in the text, etc. Reading is also faster, and it's pleasurable at least to me. Audiobooks make it so I don't get bored when I drive, or when I swim laps. They are slower, which is great when I want that. They help put me to sleep at night: there is something wonderful about having someone read you to sleep. The worst drawback of audiobooks is that they are so hard to navigate. I'm guessing this will be improved, since there is no technical reason I can think of that an Ipod screen, for example, couldn't show a page number, and have a "Go To" command. Or even a search by content function. As it is, when you fall asleep listening, it takes awhile to figure out where you were. But, then again, I've fallen asleep reading to awaken to the book's having falling to the floor, pages mercilessly bent, place lost. I think what I really need is a mom to do all this for me, but I'm in my 50's, so that's unlikely.
posted by rabbus at 6:40 AM on May 26, 2005

If I listen to something I usually end up tuning it out. I had to fight against this in university. I can read for ages and not tune out. For instance I can stick a couple of papers on my nordic track and read through them while I exercise. If I try an audio book I almost always tune out and end up counting heart beats or respiration or strides or...
posted by substrate at 6:41 AM on May 26, 2005

i suspect there's hardly any difference between reading and listening, mentally. in one case you go from "sound" to words, in the other from "sight" to words, but after that all the processing will probably be shared (which is why you learn to read by speaking aloud).

i've just (this last two days) tried using an audiobook for the first time (a birthday present). it's slower and harder to jump back to check something, but has the advantage that you don't need to concentrate as much, so can multitask. those differences seem to come down to practicalities and data rate, rather than any intrinsic advantage of listening or reading.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:02 AM on May 26, 2005

Like rabbus above, I recently joined Audible.

I'd always made fun of audiobooks until I moved and suddenly found my commute five times longer than it had been before. I hate radio, and I wasn't reading as much as I wanted, so audiobooks were a natural fit.

Over the past year, I've had time to reflect on the difference between the two forms.

For example, it occurred to me while listening to The Iliad and The Odyssey that western literature (probably all literature, actually) descends from an oral tradition. Until the advent of the printing press, and for some time thereafter, our stories were mostly passed down through the spoken word rather than the written word. When a listener allows himself to enter the proper frame of mind, hearing a story can be rich, textured experience unlike that which is possible to obtain while reading.

However, as has been noted, listening to a work is dreadfully linear. In the past, listeners could probably ask tale-bearers to repeat passages, or ask for clarification, or ask for cross-referencing. That's not really possible with modern audiobooks. Sure, you can rewind, or skip from track-to-track, or fumble with your iPod (I'm always fumbling with my iPod), but it's an imprecise thing, and often I give up before I find the passage I want to re-hear.

Reading a book is wonderfully non-linear. It's random-access. One can take notes in a book. (Heresy to some readers, I know.) One can dogear pages. One can skim. One can skip entire chapters.

However, unlike some others who have answered, I find that I actually pay better attention to audiobooks. Because physical books allow the freedom to accelerate and decelerate reading speed, the option to skim and jump around, I tend to rush my reading. I hurry through most books, skipping details. When I'm reading a novel, I don't do a good job of differentiating between characters (with voices, etc.).

When I'm listening to a book, though, I'm immersed. I have a much higher retention rate. In fact, I'm able to recall whole passages (not verbatim, of course), much to the chagrin of my wife (who couldn't care less about Stephen Maturin's three-toed sloth). What's more, my feel for characters is much more pronounced, largely because I'm able to draw from the book-reader's interpretation. My view of who Jack Aubrey was from just reading about him is different than my view of the man from listening to his adventures.

Sometimes I will both read and audit a book. For example, when our book group read Willa Cather's marvelous My Antonia last winter, I did both. I enjoyed both. I read it first, and was able to cross-reference things as I read. But when I listened to the book, the characters came alive.

As several people have noted, listening to a book generally takes a lot longer than reading it. It took me 32 hours to audit Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example, but I phsyically read the book in half the time.

Finally, I've actually found that while I enjoy listening to fiction, I'm less keen on listening to non-fiction. Mind Wide Open was a decent listen, but it was short, imprecise, and fluffy. It wasn't demanding. Founding Brothers, on the other hand, is only a mid-weight non-fiction book, but it was dreadfully difficult to audit.

(For those of you who are just starting with audiobooks, make sure you seek out recommendations for good books and readers. A good reader makes a profound difference to your listening pleasure, and some books are better to listen to than others.)
posted by jdroth at 7:38 AM on May 26, 2005

Thanks for your comments yellowcandy; I'm familiar with Ong's book, but I'd be curious if you had more work like it. I've read a lot about the history of reading and writing but not enough about current work in cognitive psych, say, about the differences.... could you point to some good sources?

From my end (and to contribute generally to the thread) I'd recommend a great essay called "Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society" by Paul Saenger. It basically gives a capsule history of the invention of reading and its effect on writing practices, the dispersion of knowledge, etc.; it's a great place to start for this discussion about the written vs. the spoken word. The differences between written and spoken media are pretty huge; for a real mind-bending experience you should check out some of the writing that's been done, by Eric Havelock and others, on how the Iliad, say, was probably performed--it was nothing like an audiobook.

Here's the citation pulled from my heap-o-citations: Saenger, Paul. "Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society." Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Viator) 1982; 13: 367-414.

For what it's worth, I think the written/read aloud dichotomy is actually very complicated; there is no single answer to the question 'which is better' because some works are written with reading more in mind. Ulysses, for example, is an interesting case; is the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses specifically designed to be read by the 'reader' of the book, i.e., off the page? I think it is: but that's an opinion that would have to be justified. Joyce is a great example of a writer who is intentionally playing with the distinction between what is read silently and what is spoken aloud, which is why recorded versions of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are so good.

As for reading books like Mind Wide Open, I've listened to audiobooks like that many times, it's great--especially with that 'speed up' feature on the newer iPods.
posted by josh at 8:01 AM on May 26, 2005

One benefit of reading is an improvement in spelling. That's not to say that there aren't benefits of listening that don't exist in reading, but since I didn't see anyone point it out I thought I would.

OTOH, as someone who reads a lot, there are often times when I know how to spell a word but have no clue how to pronounce it.
posted by INTPLibrarian at 8:09 AM on May 26, 2005

One benefit of reading is an improvement in spelling.


Great point.

I made this observation to my wife a few weeks ago. I realized that I didn't know how to spell any of the names in Dracula or Vanity Fair or any of the other books I've only ever heard, but never read. I mean, I could approximate the spellings — I am a writer, after all — but I could never truly be sure whether it's Jonathan Harker or Jonothan Hearker or some other bizarre variation.

It's a natural logical leap that this must have especially been true of spelling in general longer ago when literacy rates were lower, when spoken communication took the place of written communication.
posted by jdroth at 8:38 AM on May 26, 2005

I love both reading and listening to books. For my money, though, the most brainwork of all is required to read aloud to someone else. I sometimes read to Hubby, and I find that my eyes skip ahead of my voice to see what's coming, and parse it, and figure out the inflections and intonations (and that's not counting my attempts to give different voices to different characters), and all this is happening while I'm still saying the previous sentence. That's work!

Actually, I find my best retention is for stuff I've read aloud, probably because of all the effort I put into it.
posted by Quietgal at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2005

One can take notes in a book. (Heresy to some readers, I know.)

This, to me, is one of the greatest strengths of reading: I take notes in the book (in my own books, mind you, not in anyone else's). Run across a word I don't know? Underline it and scribble the definition in the margin. Same with historical or cultural figures, and the occasional counterargument (non-fiction) or bit about symbolism, metaphor, foreshadowing etc. (fiction). In my mind, at least, reading is superior because the annotation helps understanding and retention.

As others have pointed out, audiobooks are not good for annotation or even especially good at clarifying by repeating certain parts. They're convenient, but (like reading) they're not the kind of storytelling they descended from. (Think of the story-telling you have in a small group of friends: "Wait a minute. He who? Frank, or Jesse?")
posted by Tuwa at 9:29 AM on May 26, 2005

When I'm listening to a book, though, I'm immersed. I have a much higher retention rate.
i wonder if this can be explained by the extra time required? if you read a book twice as fast as you listen to a book, perhaps you should compare retention with reading it twice?
posted by andrew cooke at 10:31 AM on May 26, 2005

My husband is now legally blind (TBI) and gets all his literary input from either a ZoomText screen reader, books-on-tape, or someone (usually me) reading to him aloud. Having been sighted for most of his life, he misses being able to pause to parse an idea or savor a phrase in a book or article--doing so means missing the next few lines of text. Now, this guy comes across as a bit of a nutter, but you still gotta give him props when he describes both reading and writing as 'transitory technologies,' and wouldn't our kids' brains be better utilized in a VIVO-world where they didn't have to spend the bulk of educational years mastering those dead skills and could instead jump straight into the Theory of Relativity?
posted by DawnSimulator at 1:47 PM on May 26, 2005

Response by poster: wow, there's obviously been a lot of questions posted to the green in the last 18 hours or so -- this is nearly off the front page already. Shame. I'm indebted to you all for your contributions but I'll particularly thank DawnStimulator for sharing of the personal viewpoint. Am I better able to answer the questions posted? Yes and no. But my own cognitive functioning has been enhanced by the exercise. Don't let my speaking up be anything more than an interruption to the flow of ideas, should anyone have anything further to offer.
[oh Josh...if you look at my user profile you'll see that I have an affinity for JJ -- I did read U aloud on about the 5th reading ------ and I was thinking of U when I posted the question, funnily enough]
posted by peacay at 3:08 PM on May 26, 2005

I'd just like to do a shout-out to Rockbox on the Archos (and kind of on iRiver). This open-source mp3 player OS has enabled unlimited one-click bookmarking for every audio file. Not just start-on-resume for the most recently played, you can bookmark your way through any audio file, then cycle through the bookmarks on-demand, or go back to them days, weeks, months later. You don't *need* special formats for for audible or other packagers to cut them up into chapters for you. There's a vast collection of pre-recorded spoken word and audio out there that would be a real pain for me to plough through without being able to breadcrumb my way. rockbox is a godsend. It even does talking menus (navigation and file data) for blind folk, and total hands-free operation. It's totally changed the way I interact with spoken word. Unlimited bookmarking with audio is like being able to fold back the corners of pages of especially good pages of books for later perusal.
posted by meehawl at 2:23 PM on May 27, 2005

Response by poster: For any timetravellers looking this thread up, here's a link to a related thread in the blue a day or so later -- particularly look for meehawl's comments towards the end re: bookmarking & portable mp3 op. systems. Thanks meehawl !
posted by peacay at 10:22 PM on May 27, 2005

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