Recently I rediscovered the joys of listening to a good audiobook while traveling through the Oxfordshire countryside.
There is nothing quite like listening to the deep timbre of Richard Armitage’s voice as he tells Chekov’s news as I stroll along the Cherwell, watching swans cross the river in the sunshine. winter.
But I have encountered considerable resistance from friends and acquaintances whenever I mention the last book I read. Listening to an audiobook, in their opinion, is “cheating”. If they happen to infer that I used Audible to consume the literary text in question, they tell me that it “doesn’t matter” and that I “don’t really read”.
First, I take issue with the use of the word “cheating”, which implies a certain deviance as well as an unfair advantage. Reading, whether through reading a written word or the joy of listening to someone read aloud, is not and should not be viewed as a form of work. There is no cheating here.
I’m not denying that listening to an audiobook and reading a printed book activate different brain pathways; the first stimulates the network involved in auditory processing, while the second relies on the network devoted to visual processing. Any neurologist or psychologist can tell you that. But, as I insist with my skeptical friends, the same information enters my brain, even though, to put it bluntly, it is transmitted through my ears rather than through my eyes. Most psycholinguists would agree with me: the psychological and neurobiological machinery involved in consuming, dissecting and appreciating a story is the same, regardless of the mode of transmission.
Numerous studies have shown that reading comprehension and listening are correlated. In 2016, Dr Beth Rogowsky of Bloomsburg University conducted a study in which adult volunteers were divided into three groups. The first group listened to excerpts from Laura Hillenbrand Uninterrupted, while the second read the same extracts from an e-reader. The last group read and listened to the excerpts simultaneously. The volunteers were then subjected to a comprehension test. Dr. Rogowsky and his team found no significant difference in scores between the three groups.
Despite the current trend towards writing, the spoken word resonates throughout the annals of history. The oral tradition of storytelling is an important aspect of many cultures and predates writing by thousands of years. Reading, as Dr Abigail Williams of the University of Oxford puts it, was a “spectator sport” in the 18th century. From love poetry and sermons to humorous books and science tracts, reading aloud was a social activity, a form of emotional catharsis, drama, and self-improvement. After all, much of the literature was written for the express purpose of being read aloud. Listeners can get a lot of information from a speaker’s infections or intonations. The pace, pitch and rhythm of the speaker’s speech add a wonderful extra dimension to the written word.
And then there is the question of accessibility. In response to my friends’ irritated accusations of “cheating” whenever I mention reading while listening to audiobooks, I ask if they would accuse a blind person who uses braille of not being able to read. Due to my ME / CFS I am having visual processing issues. My eyes go glassy, and I read and reread the same sentence over and over. But as I listen to the word, my mind wanders less and I find myself entering a lot more text. Audiobooks are also great for the visually impaired, dyslexics, and others with visual processing issues.
Growing up under the watchful gaze of my Calvinist father who frequently repeated the mantra “if someone isn’t working, they shouldn’t eat either,” I internalized the Protestant work ethic to the extent that I struggling to sit still and read, feeling like I’m not productive enough. To borrow another of my dad’s beloved phrases, I can “kill two birds with one stone” by listening to an audiobook while painting or shopping. There is something magical about being transported to a new era or to a new planet while cleaning pots or vacuuming the house.
There are of course a number of downsides to listening to an audiobook. It is more difficult to go back and read the sections again. However, learning how to skip and rewind on Audible (or any audiobook app) is pretty easy, as the app’s interface is straightforward and accessible.
And I have to admit, nothing beats the warmth and weight of a real book in the hand. I have an extraordinary taste for the material qualities of reading; the sweet smell of old pages, the scribbles and notes left by past readers, or the joy of strolling in a bookstore, knowing that many literary treasures are at hand.
I admit that I am one of those readers who can be accused of mutilating and desecrating books. I fold the corners of the pages to remember where I belong, happily underline my favorite sections, and my generous application of post-it notes on certain pages turns any book I read into something more like a showy monstrosity. from Grayson Perry than to a real book. At least my love of audiobooks prevents another book desecration. I have made a habit of keeping a notebook with me at all times so that I can jot down passages and sentences that capture me.
So, is listening to an audiobook a form of reading? In my humble opinion, absolutely. I am not arguing for the supremacy of audio books over written text. I’m just suggesting that we give them the same respect. Those who still insist that listening to a book read aloud “does not count” as reading must recognize that the definition of reading changes over time. If naysayers persist in quibbling over semantics, perhaps we should create a new word that encompasses all forms of literature consumption. In the meantime, I’ll put on my noise-canceling headphones, scroll through my digital library, and find a new literary treasure to listen to.
– Jean Balchin, former English student at the University of Otago, studies at the University of Oxford after being awarded a Rhodes scholarship.