Listening to audio books really isn’t reading

After talking to some friends about this topic, I was shocked at the number of people that considered listening to audio books as reading. Some of them were to the point of being angry I would even suggest that it’s not. It really makes me wonder how anyone could possibly think listening to someone else reading a book is the same thing as you reading the book yourself. I look at it this way, if you’re listening to an audiobook you’re basically watching TV or a movie without the pictures. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m saying listening to audio books isn’t the same as reading.

Now, I get why people listen to audio books. Many of my friends have long commutes to and from work and chose to listen to audio books in their car over listening to radio. If my commute to work was as long as theirs I’d likely be doing the same thing. But just because they have a great reason for listening doesn’t mean they read the book. If you order a pizza delivered to your place you wouldn’t tell people you cooked the pizza, how is listening to an audio book any different?

When reading a book it’s the reader who decides how a scene appears to them. The reader interprets the words on the page for themselves and develops his/her own mental image of the action. When listening to an audio book it’s the narrator who interprets the scene, and through their vocal tones, character voices (be they significant or not), and/or inflection they paint a picture for the listener. Everything the writer puts in the book is important, in one way or another, to the story. Narrating often misses many of those elements because your ears can’t pick up why the author started a new paragraph, or used a comma instead of a period, or any other of the various grammatical features that don’t express well in narration.

Another way of looking at this. I have read a couple of books by Luis Miguel Rocha. The original language these books were written in was Portuguese (it actually might be Spanish, but that’s not specifically relevant) and I read the English translations. I would bet good money there was information lost between the Portuguese and English versions and I doubt you’d find too many people that would disagree with that. Yet there are apparently a huge number of people that think reading the book and listening to an audio book are the same despite the exact same issues between audio books vs reading and translations from different languages appearing.

I have an author friend that in public rants about audio books being exactly the same as reading. Of course she does, because she wants sales of either of them and has no interest in alienating any potential customers. But get a few drinks into her and she’s just as adamant in private that listening to the book isn’t the same as reading. If you were to look up opinions of authors on the subject I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find many that would argue listening to audio books isn’t reading, and those you did find are likely to be at the top of the sales list where their books would sell no matter what the format was. Of course authors that need your money aren’t going to go against the grain and say they aren’t the same. It’s career suicide for them to do so.

So just to be clear, I’m not saying listening to audio books is bad and you shouldn’t do it. If it’s the easiest–or only–way you can get the story, then by all means listen to the audio book. But don’t tell me you read the book, because you didn’t.


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