This is the debate in the book-reading community. At least, it’s the one that tends to come up in casual conversation most often. And it’s a touchy subject—not everyone has the time to sit down and tear through the physical pages of a book, and some even prefer the soothing timbre of spoken words.

But the question that remains is: Does listening to a book count as reading it?

Now, I think the main issue is that we’re asking the wrong question. If you want to get technical (and semantic) about it, then the answer is easily no, listening to a book isn’t the same as reading one. But that’s touching on pedantic (much to the tune of “Can I go to the bathroom?” to wit any teacher would reply “I don’t know, can you?”) (turn this into a footnote.) and isn’t really what we’re asking about.

The way I see it, we’re focusing on content and the comprehension of it. The questions that I would then focus on are: Do you obtain the same information and nuance from listening to an audiobook? and Do you understand the story better having read it rather than listened to it?

image of the audible cover for six degrees of assassination with an image of actress freema agyeman and actor andrew scott

I don’t really listen to audiobooks that much (the most applicable example being my listening to Six Degrees of Assassination, an audio drama from Audible) so I’m sure that my commentary on the matter is relatively….irrelevant, all things considered. Nonetheless! I’m going to chime in, but feel free to ignore!

Die-hard physical book traditionalists vehemently take the stance of “listening to the audiobook is not reading it” and again, I defer to our pedantic considerations. Sure, it’s not strictly “reading” the book, it isn’t by definition. But the real argument here is that you can’t even check off “Read” on your cherished Goodreads account if you listened to the audiobook. 

From the other side: audiobook-bingers are steadfast in their assertion that they’ve read the books they’ve listened to. I know my mum consumes audiobooks the way I consume podcasts: in the car. It’s nice to have a little background noise as we go from place-to-place. As far as I know, she’s not ever re-listened to an audiobook she’s downloaded. Most other audiobook-ers I know also are a one-listen kind of listener, much in the same way that I haven’t re-read very many of my books.

But when it comes down to it, it seems like a relatively mundane argument. Does it really matter whether someone reads or listens to the book? Does it matter if they mark the book off as “read” on their beloved Goodreads account? What does it matter if someone prefers listening to reading or vice versa*?  (*Some say that there is a sort of literary superiority to those who have read the book over those who have listened to it. In the end, I don’t think it really matters.)

An Idea:

Get a book club group together—as avid readers, I’m sure this wouldn’t be too hard. As the leader of the book group, delegate half of your readers to read the physical book and the other half to listen to the audiobook. Assign these randomly! But try and have an even split.

Once everyone has read/listened to the book, have your book club meeting. Carry on as usual; lead the discussion, ask questions, and encourage friendly debate. At the end of the meeting, ask everyone to guess who read the book and who listened to it!

Considerations:

For those of you who take the stance that reading is inherently better than listening to the book and that listening doesn’t “count” as having read the book, consider whether people have time to read the book. I’m currently in the midst of reading The Goldfinch and whew! I wouldn’t mind listening to it if it got me through it faster. (I think I’m maybe 25% of the way through it as of writing this.) Having the time to read isn’t the same as having the time to listen; consider driving! You can’t exactly read and drive….don’t do it!

An additional consideration that I want to point out is for those with dyslexia or other visual impairments that make reading books difficult, painful, or even tiresome. Listening to books takes this stress and strain away and allows them to enjoy the book as much as reading it! Accessibility in literature is just as important as in real life—and both areas tend to be sorely lacking.

Some readers also retain information better audibly over visually. They may find it preferable to listen rather than read in order to better understand the story, plot—and having the dulcet tones of Michelle Obama or Trevor Noah narrating is also a huge bonus. (Though if you try hard enough, maybe you can read it in their voices….who knows!)

That Being Said. . .

While still being one of the hottest topics in the book world, the listening versus reading debate is louder than it is important. It’s fun to talk about the semantic aspects of it, but when it comes down to it, any way you consume your book is fine by me.

How do you consume your literature? Are you a die-hard physical book reader? A rogue audiobook savant? Or do you dabble in both the physical and audible domains? Leave a comment, and join the conversation!

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