Is Listening to Audiobooks Really Reading?
Dec 19, 2019
In my last quarter of undergraduate school, I took a final required class: Applied Linguistics. I had no idea what to expect, but proceeded to have my mind blown. From learning how young children can’t use irregular grammar until they've reach a marked developmental milestone [He 'taked' the ball from me] to discovering that linguists had written some of my favorite books [dictionaries], each class was a marvel.
But when Professor Childs taught us that our brains don’t really “see” the words in our mind when we read, I raised my hand. “Professor,” I said. “I alway see the words." He was a very smart and eccentric man. He’d done research all over the world, even documented languages never before written. And he didn’t mind correcting me that ‘no,' I did not see words when I read. Perhaps I imagined I did, he said, but “we” know that people don’t really “see” letters but identify words as symbols.
I loved that class, but left knowing that I would be ‘agreeing to disagree’ with Professor Childs. Because as long as I can remember, I’ve been spelling words in my head. And whether I’m reading or someone is talking to me, I am often ’seeing’ the words. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.
How You Experience Language Matters
Each of us who encounter language is different. Not everyone “sees” words just like not everyone comprehends well verbally. I once had a student whose learning disability was such that words—read or spoken—meant very little to her. The learning specialist who evaluated her comprehension compared the words that went into her mind as a cup with a hole in the bottom. The words passed through and then fell right out.
While her language disability was described as ‘profound,’ there are other reading disabilities that make reading the words on the page challenging. From dyslexia to ADHD, not everyone benefits equally from spending hours reading.
Does that Audiobook Count?
As a lifelong reader and writer, I have a confession to make. Last year I read 37 books, and 35 of them were recorded on audio. Now fuddy-duddy Victoria [this was a phase I went through from about ages 10-25] would have discarded the notion that audio books are reading at all. In fact, she would have shared my friend’s recent reaction when I told her I’d been reading a lot through the app Audible. She corrected me. “But you weren’t reading them, right? Wouldn’t you say you were listening?”
In a recent Psychology Today article
, Cody Kommers makes the same case. He’s quick to acknowledge that both forms have value but that reading and listening are not the same. According to Kommers, reading is active and listening is passive.
And here I must raise my hand and ‘agree to disagree.’ Because unlike watching movies, where the images are pre-formed, listening to an audiobook still requires your mind to create images from the words. And it would seem that recent science would agree with me. In a study from the Journal of Neuroscience
, researchers found that brain scans revealed the same regions of the brains activated when reading or listening to the same text.
Why You Should Consider Audio
Perhaps the reason I used the word “confession” earlier is due to the value [or is it judgment?] the educated elite place on reading books. I get it. I really value reading, and I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life in print novels, plays, poetry, and research. And as someone who spends sometimes eight whole hours a day looking at words, my own and others, the years and the hours caught up to me. I became someone I didn’t like. I became someone who stopped ‘reading.’ Why? Because as soon as I opened a book, I would fall asleep. My mind simply said I’m full.
When I discovered that I could ingest whole books, both fiction and non-fiction, by switching to audiobooks I felt cured. As long as my brain wasn’t looking at words elsewhere, I could listen to stories being read to me.
When to Listen to Books
If you’e not reading very much already, you might be telling yourself it’s because you simply don’t have time. And maybe you really, really don’t. But what if you have increments of 15-minutes here or there and when added together you could spend a few hours a week soaking up a good book? And if you’ve ever gotten swept away by a great story, you know that a few hours is really all it takes until you are ravenous to finish it.
The reason I got through 35 novels in 2019 is due to another habit I have: walking. I walk my dog at least once a day and sometimes three times a day if the book is good! Jack’s happy, and I’m happy because we’re both out there getting fresh air and exercise. [Jack doesn't know I'm also getting a story. Shhh!]. In fact, adding audiobooks to my walking routine not only meant 35 novels but over 1000 miles walked in the same year.
And since Kyle lives an hour away, or more depending on traffic, I also listen to books while commuting to see him. But you don’t need a whole hour in a car to listen to a book. I also got my 11-year-old to read more by listening to Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events while driving to school in the mornings.
My dad who drives cross-country for a living gets all of his audiobooks from the library for free. You have to wait for popular titles, but with so many great books to read Dad says he doesn’t mind. On the other hand, I have a monthly subscription to Audible and receive two book credits each month. Last year, I typically bought one more audiobook as my habit grew but, hey, I also drank less Starbucks so it worked out. 🙂
I started 2019 with listening to a classic that I’d always wanted to read, Anna Karenina, and I probably would have continued to procrastinate such a long work of classic literature if it hadn’t been that Audible advertised that actress Maggie Gyllenhaal would be the narrator. In fact, just like books that are made into blockbuster films with award-winning actors, some audiobooks are read by tremendously talented voice actors.
I’ve heard Tom Hanks read Anne Pachett’s new book, A Dutch House, Rosamund Pike read Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and Claire Dane perform A Handmaid’s Tale. Not every narrator is as a famous thespian, but over time you’ll develop a taste for new narrators you like best. I particularly enjoyed Sean Crisden and Elsa Davis’s reading of An American Marriage and Gail Honeyman’s performance of Eleanor Elephant is Completely Fine. There are some books as well that are read by writers—some of the writers are fantastic readers [I love listening to Brene Brown] but others I’ve liked less [I’ll let you discover who you like and don’t.]
It’s All Story
So am I reading or am I listening? Does it matter? The reason I believe that neuroscientists have discovered the brain processes reading and listening the same is that they both cue our minds for story. Whether we can speak thoughtfully about character development, plot, and theme matters less than our earliest trainings of a story as beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, a story holds deep meaning communicated in the form of entertainment—one of the reasons we’re drawn to story again and again is to watch one more variation on how a character will solve or overcome a problem. Or as Roland Barthes beautifully describes our fascination with story, “Literature is the question minus the answer.”