Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Does it Count as "Reading" if You're "Listening"?

My lovely sister-in-law Ashley posed this question on an earlier post, and since I have lots and lots of love for audio books, I thought today might be a good idea to discuss this question a bit more in depth.

Does it count as "reading" if you're "listening"?

Short answer: Absolutely positively.

Long answer: I suppose we could wax philosophical here about what exactly "reading" is. Is it an experience? A series of neurological transactions that take place according to certain stimuli? What role does the visual or aural senses have to play in this definition?

Okay, I'm not going to get too deep into the philosophical or even scientific question of what "reading" is. I'll keep it simple here. For me, reading is simply about comprehension of information. Granted, the vast about of information we "comprehend" comes in the form of visual cues, whether it be words on a page or emotions on a face, but comprehension can occur aurally too. So to answer the question of whether or not "listening" counts as "reading," I'd say it depends on comprehension level, and there are three big factors that can influence aural comprehension: your learning style, the book in question, and the context in which you are listening.

Learning Style
Do you have a visual learning style, or an auditory learning style? I think this is the crux at the heart of the question of whether "listening" to a book counts as "reading" it, because it defines how well a person processes information in these two mediums. I think I have a slight preference toward auditory learning (although I also consider myself a strong visual learner, luckily it's not an either/or thing), so to me, audio books feel like a completely natural way to consume the written word. I can follow and comprehend a story just as well as if I were reading it. To me, this means that even if I'm listening, I'm fully "reading" a story. Sometimes, I even get more out of a story when I listen to it or read it aloud to someone else, mostly because when I read silently I tend to skim and skip copiously and speed read. But even when I listen to a book at double speed, the narrator still has to say every word so I really get the details.

However, if you have a strong preference for visual learning, if your mind processes information better that you see in print, or if your mind tends to wander while listening, then you might want to stick to printed books. It's all about how your brain processes information. (I suspect Ashley might be more of a visual learner, and thus her conflicted feelings about audio books).

The Book in Question
Some books just don't work in the audio book format very well. Is this a non-fiction text that relies heavily on graphic information, or contains lists or quizzes? Might want to stick to the book format for that. I made the mistake of listening to Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as an audio book, and I do not recommend that. The book is full of lists and quizzes, and it was not only a fruitless way for me to consume this information (rather difficult to take a quiz when you are listening to it while driving), but it made for pretty tedious listening when the narrator read every. single. item. on the quizzes, even repetitious phrases like "Sometimes, always, or never" for each question. Ugh.

That being said, I also "read" The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by listening to the audio book, which is not the format I would recommend for that book either, but we all know how that managed to impact my life. So I guess that just proves that learning style matters more than medium.

However, there are some books that make better audio books than real books. If you get a good production and a stellar narrator, listening to the audio version can be an immersive experience. Here is where I will whole-heartedly plug anything performed by Jim Dale, who is without question the best narrator in the history of everything. I loved Harry Potter in print just fine (understatement), but I haven't actually re-read Harry Potter in print, because once I listened to Jim Dale's version of those stories, there was just no other way to "read" Harry Potter for me.

Audio tends to work really well for me for lighter fiction novels, books that are plot or narrative heavy, stories with really engaging immersive worlds, books where the characters speak in accent, or books with lots of hard-to-pronounce names or made-up language (#fantasyproblems).


So, you can be listening to the best audio book in the world, but if you keep getting interrupted, it can really mess with your "reading" experience. This is true for my daily life with a talkative and demanding preschooler who expects me to actually listen and respond to him (the effrontery!) whenever he wishes to converse (which is pretty much every moment of all day long). While he's awake (most of the time now, since he doesn't nap), I prefer to have paper books on hand because they're easier for me to pick up and put down at a moment's notice. Audio books are less convenient for such interruptions. They require some focus, and if you get distracted, it's much more difficult to go back and re-listen to an audio book.

That being said, I still prefer audio books for certain activities, like whenever I work on a hands-on projects when the kids are sleeping. Nothing makes cleaning the bathroom more palatable than a good audio book. I also love audio books in the car, but generally only when I commute to school, not so much when I'm toting the kids around (that interruption thing).

In short, if you have a strong enough audio learning style, the book lends itself well to audio, and you have some good time with minimal distractions and interruptions (and even better, something to do with your hands), then I absolutely believe that listening to a book counts as reading it.

Which medium do you prefer? Are you an audio or visual learner? Do you consider "listening" to count as "reading"? What are your favorite audio books?


  1. There was a time in my life when I didn't think audiobooks counted as real books. And then one of my good friends (and a voracious reader) mentioned how much she loved audiobooks. I began to notice that all of the "real" readers listen to audiobooks because, they're not dumb, they can "read" twice as many books that way! So I put aside my prejudices and have wholeheartedly embraced audiobooks for the last seven years. And I've discovered that there are some books that I far prefer to listen to than read a paper copy of (namely, classics and dense nonfiction). So hurrah for audiobooks! One more way to consume great literature! ;-) (And as I'm writing this, I'm importing the CDs of The Secret Keeper into iTunes so I can listen to it on my phone.)

  2. Thanks for the post, Suzanne! I hadn't even considered the learning style point you brought up. And yes, I do tend to be a visual learner (which is why I sort of failed the Suzuki listening method), and I think I am also partly a tactile learner. So I have to see the words and hold the book in my hands to feel like I'm "reading" (I love cute little books, and I absolutely judge a book by its cover and size). But I also don't have a lot of time for that, and I feel guilty for not doing something else. Which is why I love audio books because I can do something with my hands at the same time, even if it is just playing a game on my phone. But, the interruptions, you're right, are so hard with audio, and sometimes it is awhile before I get back to an audio book and I've lost the story line. Audio books are better for me at my stage of busy motherhood, and I definitely get more books in this way (Moby Dick would never have happened in paper form!), but I think I need to set aside time for paper books too.

    I was also interested in this question in regards to my children learning to read. Both hearing books and reading books are important. My 9-year-old likes to read a book and then check out the audio version too. And I've noticed when we read together that she likes to follow along with the words as I read aloud. Hearing the words helps children to learn pronunciation and rhythm and storytelling, which is just as important as reading the words on a page. My almost-7-year-old is on the cusp of reading independently. I'm still not sure when she is looking at a book by herself if she is actually reading all the words or just gleaning the story from the pictures and some words. So to "count" for the summer reading chart, I like for her to read out loud to me. Visual and auditory. We also count listening to audio books for the "reading" chart, so I guess I answered my own question with that :)

    1. Exactly. I definitely consider the read aloud experience when it comes to kids listening as "reading" for the child. I think visual and aural skills are both important parts (not mentioned in the post, I've actually written three papers on aspects of oral culture literature: back before the days of the printing press "listening" used to be the only way people could consume literature).

      Also, I've had to battle the guilt of sitting down to read paper books, but I'm doing a pretty good job because I tell myself three things: 1.) It's an important goal, not a waste of time, 2.) I want my children to see me reading, and 3.) It's in the schedule! It's what I'm "supposed" to be doing for at least an hour every day.