Thoughts on Reading vs. Listening to Books

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 2.36.46 pmThe question posed on Facebook went something like this (and I paraphrase): Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book? If one listened to an audiobook, can that be added to a “books I read this year” list?

My initial response went something like this: No, they are not the same, but I suppose you can put it on the list.

But as people chimed in, and as I was given more time to think about this, I realized that the answer is actually not that simple.

First, of course reading is different from listening. I was surprised at those who claimed listening to a book is the same as reading it, emphasizing their points with capitalized letters or exclamation points. I guess one of my issues with this is that first, the action being taken is actually different. And we have very specific words to describe those actions: read and listen.

The Oxford Dictionary defines to read as “to look at and comprehend the meaning of written or printed matter by interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed.” And to listen as “to give one’s attention to a sound.” Completely different. When someone says they read a book, everyone understands that as physically looking at the pages. So when you actually listened to it, saying you read it is simply not accurate. I realize some people may think that is nitpicking. But we have gotten so muddy with definitions lately. And sloppy use of words leads to a breakdown in communication, as this example attests.

Turns out, words are important. There is no better proof of this than social media. Mobs are unflinching in their quest to shame and vilify anyone who might use the “wrong” word. Are they nitpicking? But you can’t have it both ways – nitpicking when it comes to others’ language and not when it involves your own.

And a scroll through Facebook will quickly demonstrate the communication breakdown that is often based simply on different definitions of the same word. The result is chaos. Half the time I don’t know what people are talking about. I recognize the words, but they are being used in ways that are incomprehensible to me. How can I possibly have a conversation under those conditions? The truth is, we don’t anymore.

So if you say you read The Gentleman in Moscow when you actually listened to the audiobook, that in itself may not be a big deal and may not be worthy of a post like this. But the practices of muddying the definitions of words beyond their definitions, changing the meanings of words, and of denying differences between words certainly is.

However, reading a book and listening to a book are not only different actions; they are also different in the processing and in the outcome. The entire experience is different. I’m guessing this is where the seeming defensiveness that I sense comes from (such as calling those who claim listening is not the same as reading as “narrow-minded”).

So let me just say this. No one said difference is bad. No one. It’s just…different. No judgement. This seems to also have become more and more common – denying differences because to admit differences assumes one is better than the other. Sure, reading may be better for some things, and listening may be better for others. Men may be better at some things, and women may be better at others. Everything doesn’t have to be the same to have value.

Besides the differences in the way the brain responds to and processes reading and listening, something way beyond my sphere of knowledge, how exactly are the two different?

For one, when listening to a book, you don’t see the words. You don’t see the sentences and how they’re structured, the punctuation, the paragraphing, the layout. If you don’t think these things matter, that’s fine. But whether you are conscious of it or not, these elements are carefully created by the writer and actually do change your experience with a book.

Some commenters on the post noted that both reading and listening ignite the imagination and force us to create images in our heads. This is true, someone else voices the words, choosing what to emphasize or deemphasize. They convey meaning through volume, pitch, pace, cadence, resonance, insertion of pauses, just to name a few elements they have control over.And this isn’t news. We all use our voices to transmit meaning beyond our mere words every day. So even if we are listening to a book, our ability to use our imagination has been compromised by the reader’s interpretation. This is true in a much more obvious manner in movies made from books.

And then there are the more practical differences: the difficulty of going back and rereading something. As one poster explained, she enjoys retreading a lyrical sentence or reading more slowly to savor great dialogue or description. She also pointed out the need to sometimes revisit a specific character’s story or timeline. This isn’t impossible with audiobooks, but for me has proven to be unwieldily. Usually I am on a walk or driving while listening and cannot easily start rewinding to locate a passage to replay or to remind myself of some earlier plot point.

I realize not everyone wants to take reading this seriously. That is fine. But that doesn’t mean they are the same.

It really all comes down to what “counts.” This is the word that kept popping up on people’s responses. Whether or not listening “counts.” And there seemed to be no agreement as to what it does or doesn’t “count” for. To get the gist of the story or main points? To pass an English test? To stimulate the brain? To increase the number of books you can get through in a year? To gain exposure to written work when reading is either difficult or nearly impossible? To be able to attend book club and participate in the discussion over wine? To retain information? To build literacy? To enrich your mind? To dive deep into a novel and its meanings?

Depending on the goal, what “counts” would be different. In my English classes where we dive deep and pick apart a novel, listening would not count. To get the gist? Listening would surely count. This past summer, I listened to a large section of Will Durant’s The Life of Greece from his Story of Civilization set on audiobook. I was preparing for a trip to Greece and wanted a basic understanding of the history of the places I was visiting. Believe me, that counted. I got the highlights, and that was all I needed. In my book club, I typically read the books we have chosen. But many listen to the audiobooks. And they get the gist. But I also notice that those who listen end up asking a lot of questions about things they realize they must have missed.

But the story is often in the details, the nuance, something we have failed to grasp as a society lately. And detecting nuance and recognizing figurative language seems to be a a skill that is atrophying. Yet again, leading to massive miscommunication.

I am certainly not opposed to audiobooks. I have my own collection of them, and they serve their purpose. But lately, I’ve discovered podcasts (God, I’m such a late adopter!). And now my audiobooks are collecting dust, so to speak. The fact is, the medium matters. One respondent who emphasized that reading and listening are the same pointed out that storytelling is older than the printing press. This is true. But you would never want to read one of those oral stories word for word in a book. Oral stories are told quite differently than written stories. They are full of repetition. They are performance. They respond to the audience and change with each retelling. When those oral stories were put into writing, they were adapted for a new medium of storytelling – the printed word.

Radio shows didn’t translate well on television when TV became popularized. The streaming services like Netflix have changed how shows are now written. If you have ever binge-watched a show originally produced for one of the big three networks on Netflix, they don’t translate as well as the ones written specifically for streaming. The writing had to change. A local news program doesn’t translate well to the Internet. You get the point.

Which brings me to podcasts. Podcasts are storytelling as well. But they are told differently than a novel, a movie, a streamed show. It’s a different delivery system. Podcasts are specifically put together to be listened to, and as a result, they are so much more effective at communicating through audio. For me, it’s “easier” and more natural to listen to podcasts than to audiobooks, which are read from books that were written to maximize effectiveness through reading.

Finally, one word that showed up on the post was “consume.” As in to “consume a book.” Someone else referred to “injesting” literature.

Is that our goal? To consume books? As an English professor, I would never want my students to merely consume a book. I am currently writing a novel, and believe me, I am not toiling over this story, setting aside huge chunks of my life, and exploring the complexity of the human condition for it to be consumed. I am writing to touch someone’s heart, to open another’s. To evoke buried emotions. To build a community. To create empathy. To provide a window into a life different from yours and maybe one that is just like yours. To prompt you to learn something about yourself.

A lofty goal? Yep. But worth it.

A lofty hope for those out there reading and listening to books? Yep. But worth it also.

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