The Book World Is Debating the Value of Audiobooks–Again

Audiobook Discussion

Credit: Sai Kiran Anagani – Unsplash

If you’ve logged onto Book Twitter in the past couple days, you’ll have noticed the resurrection of a tired debate: Does reading an audiobook “count” as “real” reading?  To the credit of the people I actually follow on Twitter, I’ve only seen people saying that, yes, audiobooks are books and reading one/listening to one (whatever terminology you prefer to describe the activity) counts as reading a book.

To me, it’s blatantly obvious that listening to an audiobook isn’t fundamentally different from reading a physical book or an e-book (you know, directing your eyes at words on a page or a screen), but I’ve been pondering why some people are so adamant that audiobooks are basically fake books.  After some reflection, I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a different debate that Krysta and I sometimes raise on the blog: When people think of “reading,” are they thinking about “reading skills?”

Basically, Krysta and I have been positing for a while that the value of English classes (or, “reading things while you are in school”) is about learning content and about learning to analyze and interpret a text.  The primary point, then, is that you understand what the text is saying, you understand the context of the text in history or in some type of discourse/discussion, and you can make reasonable judgments or interpretations of the text based on what you know about it and about literature in general.

Without fail, however, some people disagree with us (which is cool; feel free to disagree in our comments!) and suggest that the point of reading in school is basically to build reading skills—to know what words mean when you see them on a page, to understand what certain sentence structures say when you see them on a page, to be able to gradually work your way up to being able to read more complex things on a page, etc.  It’s about having a “reading grade level” that is appropriate (or better than expected!) for your age because you can direct your eyes at a page and know what the words there say. But if reading is about “reading skills” and not really about understanding the content and argument of a text and being able to talk intelligently about it…then reading something on a page is actually different from having someone read something to you, whether it’s a person who is physically with you or an audiobook doing the reading.  It’s a different skill.

However, because I think reading is most importantly about content and discussion, the question of the manner in which someone came to be familiar with that content is irrelevant to me. No one is better because they read the word “themselves.” Whether you prefer paper books, e-books, or audiobooks, you are a reader (and therefore, obviously, awesome).

Briana

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34 thoughts on “The Book World Is Debating the Value of Audiobooks–Again

  1. Krysta says:

    I agree that the primary reasoning behind the argument that listening to audiobooks isn’t “reading” is because, yes, people are thinking of reading skills. Can their child sit down with a text, recognize the words on the page, understand increasingly complex sentence structures, and build vocabulary? If a child is unable to read a book by themselves, then, sure, parents might want to encourage that child to spend time with physical books until they they have gained the skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. Otherwise, I see no difference in whether one reads or hears a story. That person can discuss and analyze the text equally well. They’re not missing any of the text.

    However, I think a secondary reason might be our continued assumption that reading is inherently better than other forms of entertainment. There’s a lot of history behind the building of up of reading as virtuous and intellectual. Hence why people still are suspicious of graphic novels and films. Even though both also require observation and analyzing, people don’t see watching movies or reading comics as intellectual work. Somehow it’s assumed these texts are not as difficult, when that’s not the case. They simply require other sorts of skills–that may also be be difficult for some to acquire.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Right. I’m not a elementary school teacher and have no interest in assessing people’s reading skills, so it shouldn’t really matter whether they’re reading the book or listening to it.

      You’re probably right, too, that physically reading sound intellectual to people, and they may be associating listening to a book with media like TV or videos, which are seen as “less intellectual.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bathandbooks says:

    I think audio books have a really valuable space as well because they can help people who have issues through disability/mental health issues/ other issues to read so I can never understand why people would say it’s not reading? Just because it’s not with your eyes doesn’t mean you’re not reading

    Liked by 4 people

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Exactly! Audiobooks can make reading more accessible, and if someone has an issue with that, they could probably benefit from reflecting on why.

      I could be completely off base, but I do imagine some of these people as adults who are still disproportionately proud that “I was reading at a twelfth grade level in sixth grade!” and are somehow aggrieved that other people are “cheating” and undermining their status as “good readers” or something.

      Like

  3. fablehunter says:

    Interesting post! I didn’t know this argument had come up again. As someone who took Advanced Placement literature in high school and various other literature classes in college, I have a similar understanding that the purpose of reading is being able to understand the author’s meaning, the context in which they wrote it, their purpose and have a discussion based on these. I spent a lot of time writing essays analyzing various pieces of literature to not be inclined to share this opinion. I don’t really understand the fuss being made about audiobooks because you are still listening to the same content with the same structure. I don’t do well being able to focus on audiobooks because I’m more visual, so perhaps that is another reason people dislike them but I also think they can be excellent resources for others.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Now I’m imagining someone turning in a really great essay in an English class and the professor going “Hm. This is well-written, and you have a strong understanding of the existing debates about the book, and you have a really insightful interpretation of one of the main themes. But you mentioned earlier that you listened to the audiobook, so I’m going to have to take some points off because you didn’t “really” read the novel.” That would be absurd!

      I also don’t listen to audioboks because I get distracted and miss what’s happening, but other people can enjoy them! :p

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        The funny thing is, I’ve heard professors recommend audiobooks because they can help students make good use of commuting time. People who spend hours on the bus each week could easily accomplish some of their homework while travelling to and from school!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    As a teacher at a liberal arts college, I know that my job is to ask questions and get students to engage in debate. We’re not trying to find answers so much as seek truth through other perspectives. Therefore, in whatever form a person gets information serves its purpose.

    Also, if you’re the kind of crowd who looks at equality and considers able-ism, people who say reading only counts if it’s done with eyeballs are able-ist. Students with dyslexia, blindness, and ADD/ADHD often need audio books (or both audio and paperback books) to actually get the content from the book. And how dare people say individuals with disabilities aren’t “really” reading.

    And as someone who always read “above grade level” when I was in public school, let me assert that that means NOTHING when you come across people who can use reason and logic to take what they’ve read and say something about it. Without the ability to use information, the “reading level” eventually plummets because the information gets stockpiled but is useless.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Harini@BooksandReaders says:

    I think listening to audiobooks is the same as reading physical books . Sure , while listening to audiobooks , you’re not using your ‘reading skills ‘ but does that even matter ? If anything , audiobooks are a lot harder to keep up with . I personally find that I get distracted with thinking if I listen to a book being read and maybe some people find the same with physical reading of a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Vera says:

    Interesting debate!

    Reading was classified under recent BBC creativity test as a creative activity. I think that implies that reading is not just about reading ability but also the imagination, critical thinking and thought formation processes.

    Regardless if I read a book or listen to someone reading a book text to me, the process of though formation is the same. It’s not me being able to ‘see’ words but rather to interpret them. That’s of course my opinion, not a fact. 😊

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Ooh! I love the idea of reading as a creative ability! And I think you’re right. Reading isn’t just about “seeing” the words on the page, but about what we do with those words!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Megan @ Ginger Mom says:

    This is a great post! I am an extreme lover of audiobooks (though I don’t get to read nearly as many as I would like). When I think of audiobooks, I don’t think of “reading skills” or interpreting words on a page. I think of diving into a story and immersing yourself in the world that the author creates. I look at it from a purely creative perspective. So to me, audiobooks are still giving you the same exact story. Some people have trouble with their eyes and can’t read as long as others. Some people are unable to see well and this is just another way for them to experience something they might not be able to otherwise. I think audiobooks are just another way for us to enjoy literature. They aren’t meant to replace physical books, just as e-books aren’t meant to replace them. It’s just another format. Reading is reading.

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    • Krysta says:

      I agree! Many people need or prefer audiobooks for various reasons–and I see nothing wrong with that. And I actually find it funny people seem to think listening is easier than reading and thus not valid. For me, it’s far easier to read something than to listen, absorb, and remember it! Maybe I’M the one not “really” reading because visual words are too easy for me! ;b

      Like

  8. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    As I’ve watched this debate rise more and more, I believe that the only reasonable for saying reading a physical book/ebook is different from listening to an audiobook is that physical act of recognizing letters on a page as words. Since I think a lot of us are reading for more than that act, I think of reading a physical book, ebook or audiobook as all the same activity if in different formats.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I agree! I can see if elementary school parents and teachers are concerned with helping their child learn to read physical books. (In a perfect world that may one day be unnecessary, but we’re still working on making everything accessible in different formats, so….) However, I think most of us are past the learning to associate letters with sounds stage, so I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

      Anyway, it’s actually more difficult for me to listen to an audiobook than to read a physical book, so if reading is determined by how “easy” it is, maybe I’M the one who should be chastised for not “really” reading. :b

      Like

  9. ireadthatinabook says:

    Perhaps another reason is our different experiences with the two mediums? I’m rarely listening to audiobooks and when I do it’s because I’m doing something else at the same time. Thus I’m usually distracted and won’t get the full reading experience. I’m also limited to simpler books and plots to make that kind of multi-tasking feasible. If I were to judge others reading based on my own experience it would therefore make some sense to claim that listening to audiobooks is not really reading although the reason for the difference would really be that my listening skills are so much worse than my reading skills.

    I assume that a good listener who tends to skim when reading text based books could make the opposite claim.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s the thing! It’s actually really difficult for me to listen to audibooks! I can’t be doing anything else. I have to sit there and focus really hard. So I don’t think anyone can argue listening to audibooks isn’t really reading because it’s “easier.” It’s only easier for some people, not for all! By this criteria, I’m not really reading when I read physical books because it’s too easy for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Very interesting post! I didn’t know this was a discussion at all! I honestly just think of them as different experiences, but not that reading an audiobook “doesn’t count”, cos yeah, you can get the same thing out of both in terms of content and what you can glean from that.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’m honestly surprised it’s a recurring conversation. I think it’s stupid when people say reading graphic novels doesn’t “count,” but I at least get it in the sense that graphic novels tend to have fewer words and are faster to read, so I guess people can feel “cheated” that someone read 10 graphic novels while they were lugging around Tolstoy or something. But audiobooks? People are literally getting the exact same content you are. What are you objecting to???

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah I really agree with you- I usually see people talking about the other side, but it’s clear that those people feel under attack by people who don’t think it’s “real”. I do get that, I just think, maybe if an individual feels like they’ve been cheated, they are probably seeing it as too much of a competition- in which case they may as well just read all the graphic novels to get as many books under their belt as possible 😉 Perhaps they might also benefit from a light read between Russian literature- I can say from experience it really takes the edge off 😉 (maybe it’s all that heavy stuff that’s making them ratty 😉 ) But I don’t get it with audiobooks- I find you have to concentrate just as much with them anyway (just in a different way) so what’s the problem

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  11. Kristilyn says:

    I’ve listened to a LOT of audiobooks and there have been a few that I’ve listened to and realized by the end that I wasn’t paying enough attention to remember what was going on, so it led to me not liking it. But then I reread it in physical format and realize how amazing it is. I’ve learned that to keep my love of audiobooks, I need to listen to them less and really pay attention to when I’m listening to them. If I’m just cleaning the house or gardening or driving or something, I can easily listen, but if my kids are around or I’m doing paperwork, they’re not great. Plus, there are certain genres that I can listen to easily, like romantic comedies, humorous non-fiction, lighter contemporary books. If a plot is too detailed, then I have to read the physical book. But I still do think that audiobooks ARE reading – it’s not like we’re teaching kids to read by only listening to audiobooks, but they could come in handy by listening AND reading at the same time. I know that helped me a lot reading Shakespeare, to listen to a full cast recording and follow along with the text.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Shakespeare is such a good example of where an audiobook would be awesome! When I read things myself, everything tends to be in a monotone, so seeing Shakespeare acted out (or hearing it) really helps me get a sense of what emotions the characters are supposed to have in certain scenes.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. DoingDewey says:

    I’ve missed this conversation happening, but that’s probably for the best. Like you, I think if you’ve consumed the content, that’s what matters. Obviously people who are learning to read need to actually read text, but with that exception, I think anyone saying audiobooks don’t count is just being a snob.

    Like

  13. La La in the Library says:

    I follow quite a few bloggers, who pretty much only read and blog about Adult Horror, with my music Twitter account. There is a big preference for Horror among Metal musicians and people who listen to it. I would first follow them them for their music Tweets and then interact with them on their book tweets, then start following other non-Metal Horror readers. It’s just about books because I read almost zero Horror. Anyway. I love interacting with the Adult Fiction readers because there is never any of those ebooks vs. physical books debates, or calling out authors for imagined racism, or sexism, etc… so I was surprised when an author tweeted a poll asking how many books people read a year and a debate about whether audiobook listening was really “reading” started. Granted it was over much sooner than it would have been if it had started on a YA author’s thread, ha ha, but I was still surprised.

    One person said that they read more in the past, but now they crochet so they don’t read as much. I commented that I listen to audiobooks while I crochet and that’s when the debate started. I think this might be the new ebooks vs. physical books circus. Let’s just hope not. Reading is reading. Why can’t the bookish debates be constructive like reading vs. Netflix, or reading vs. video games? Ha ha. You are right, reading and the skill of reading with your eyes are two different things. I would ask them if a blind person listens to a book, have they read the book, or do they have to read it using Braille to have it count?

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s really interesting. Most of the people I follow are in the YA category, so it’s hard to see the differences of the communities sometimes. I know that children’s publishing communities often pride themselves on being on the forefront of important changes (such as championing diversity), but, yeah, we seem to have the most “drama” as well. I just can’t fathom why anyone thinks audiobooks “don’t count” or, frankly, why they would even care. This might be why the adult crowd got over the issue sooner? Reading isn’t a competition, so there’s no reason to be aggrieved that someone is “only” reading audiobooks, even if you personally don’t like them.

      I forget exactly what I was reading the other day, but someone actually said that the value of reading was learning grammar and to spell and I cringed a lot. That’s the most important thing they get out of reading? How to spell things?!

      Like

      • Krysta says:

        But the majority of people figure out how to spell by the end of grade school or high school. (Grammar is a different issue. I see tons of adults with terrible grammar, haha!) But, if we only read for grammar and spelling, is this person suggesting that a bunch of people can just stop reading after high school? There’s no point anymore because they can spell?

        Like

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