Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Is listening to an audiobook 'reading'?

I listen to audiobooks every day in the car while commuting (weekdays) or going from here to there and back again (as can happen any day of the week).  Favourites include the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series, the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse series, Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant books as read by Rupert Degas, William Hope and Laurel Lefkow's brilliant reading of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife.  Robin McKinley's Sunshine.  Bill Bryson travel books. 

So, mostly popular fiction/nonfiction (well, I am driving) and favourites have been listened to more than once.  I've pretty much given up listening to the radio (it was ABC702) in favour of stories/audiobooks.  I've come across a few duds, too - whether the narrator just didn't rock my socks, or the book just didn't grab me.... Mostly, but not always, they are books I've already read in 'book' aka print form.

In my waiting list is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I think the very respectable English lady narrator (you can hear a sample of it over on will add a delicious po-faced layer to this mashup of Austen.  And I haven't read the print book yet.

Enough about me.  Except to say, it didn't occur to me that this isn't 'reading'.  Then I read this literary agent's blog entry, and saw the poll results (pretty much even when I saw it) and read through the many comments.  Lots of folks saying yes, but lots saying no: although I'm not sure all the reasons they put forward are sufficient to confirm their case. 

Setting aside the issues related to the disabled (eg. the blind, and even then there seems to be a braille vs audio argument going on) and abridged/unabridged (I generally go for unabridged, for myself)  the comments range over an interesting assortment of interpretations of what 'reading' is, how it works, and how listening and reading may be perceived as different things.  Certainly, when I'm listening to a book, I'm aware that the narrator is adding in voice/tone/pausing that may vary from what my eyes give my brain if I'm reading the print book.  On the other hand, William Hope's worldweary "It was a routine day in October..", or Laurel Lefkow's interpretation of Clare from The Time Traveler's Wife have both given me these characters as characters, and told me the story in a way that is every bit as rich as reading the print book - not the same, but not a lesser experience.  There is an immediacy given to you by the voice.

Another line of argument agin is that reading a print book is a single-focus activity, while audiobooks are often (but not necessarily always) listened to in a multi-tasking environment - driving, housework, exercise etc which may involve divided attention and therefore less attention to the text.  Although anyone who's plodded/strode/jogged away on a treadmill, for example, is unlikely to have too much of their brain space being occupied by that activity, leaving plenty to attend to the text.

There are free audiobooks around on the net, of varying quality, but they are a resource to which I can point the kids at school for another 'take' on those books (usually classics/out of copyright).  I'm still thinking out how to make audiobooks more available to my students, because I'd like to.  Certainly, there are schools with audiobooks in their school library collections (cost and management are two issues that need solving).  Some lend students with learning problems the audiobook and print book together, so they can read it more effectively.  With player options so cheap, at entry level, and player possibilities (including mobile phones and MP3 players) so very often in the possession of students, and so portable, it's an area for investigation.

For now, I'm still puzzling over the idea that the transformation of reading, eyes-words-brain, is to so many people a 'better' thing than hearing the same words, spoken words-brain.  Isn't it just the same, but different?

Final note: my audiobook experience has been marred by the problem with rights (and I'm sure this will be an e-book issue, too).  The range available here in Australia is smaller than overseas, and a lot more expensive.  In the area of digital downloads, many many popular works seem to be 'unavailable to this geographic area' - I've had to get hold of a couple of faves through overseas contacts, or laboriously upload the CDs I can buy, when I can't buy a digital download.  As a consumer, I'm bewildered by the idea that when there IS an EXISTING audio recording of a book, authors/agents/publishers are not acting to make these available to consumers so we can buy them and they can make an income.  Search when logged in and identified as being from Australia, and you have far fewer choices than if you're not logged in and are just searching as though you were, say, an American reader. Digital downloads make so much sense - no postage, directly installed, cheaper than CDs - and yet there are titles where you can buy a CD, but not a digital download.  And plenty of titles where you can't buy either.


Fiona said...

A great, thought-provoking post Ruth. I'm going to link to it on my blog.

Denny, Alaska said...

Interesting question: is listening to an audiobook "reading?"

Almost like: is watching a music video "listening?"

My 2 cents: yes, and yes.

David Folland said...

A number of Universities have free audio book readings of out of copyright texts available for download. I Particularly like Lit2Go ( at the University of South Florida.

Amy Friedman said...

As a writer and mom of a young woman who struggled with dyslexia for years, I celebrate audiobooks; my daughter hated reading--that is until she discovered audiobooks and developed the art of reading along with another's voice. This is the reason I now produce my own Audio books of my long-running syndicated children's series. Hope maybe you'll have a listen Amy Friedman

Anonymous said...

I hope you ended up liking the audio book for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! The narrator's accent is just divine. I’m with Quirk Books, the publisher, and I just wanted to tell you that we’re coming out with a fancy Deluxe edition in November - with 30% more zombies! If you'd like more info, email us at (Or not - it’s up to you!)