Make Peace with Audiobooks

Is Listening Reading?
Posted on 12/25/2021
Joanna Bailey

There is an unspoken stigma concerning audiobooks, which is probably more often than not, self-induced. Take my husband for example.  He is intelligent and fairly well-read compared to many other people I know. The mantra “so many books, so little time” applies aptly to him.  But as much as he appreciates books as a form of learning, he is not one to spend a Saturday with his nose in one when there are chores to be done or wooden objects to be built, among other things.

The hands, however, work with a very different segment of the brain than does the intellect.  By means of an audiobook, the intellect can be easily entertained by one of Simon Winchester’s natural histories, or one of Captain Jack Aubrey’s seafaring adventures, as written by Patrick O’Brian, whilst the hands deftly measure and cut gardening bench pieces for my mother, or clean the bathroom.  Multitasking with an audiobook feeds the voracious learner in him while equally satisfying his need to “be productive” until the sun sets.

His inner conflict has long been whether he could say that he’s actually “read” a book if he listened to it.  Growing up, he was taught that reading is a mental exercise, something to be worked at, the effort of which builds character.  Listening to a book is easy; so does it qualify as reading?  How can one work one’s mind and build character if one has not sufficiently worked at it?  For him, the act of reading implies a certain mental effort that is just not present when he enjoys an audiobook.

We should examine a couple of things here.  Firstly, the purpose of a book is to convey information or a story (if you’re lucky, the author has accomplished both).  Once you’ve read a book, the information has been conveyed to you, and you’ve expanded your knowledge.  To read is to know.  Alternatively, using spoken word to convey information and story is one of the oldest forms of learning in human history.  In fact, we first learn through listening before we ever learn to read.  Cognitively speaking, we absorb and retain information differently, some could argue, better, when we listen.  To listen is to know as well.  Both forms of learning, regardless of effort spent, have equal merit and value.

Secondly, part of the beauty of the written word is the way it sounds when it is read.  Simon Winchester reads his own books.  When his Oxford-educated British accent and dry humor hits the ears, his facts are as entertaining as they are informative.   Will Patton’s gritty no-nonsense voice is the perfect complement to any Stephen King novel, but in particular, Doctor Sleep.  JD Jackson is stunning as the narrator of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.  Joan Walker’s narration of Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is impressive and not a small feat given the number of characters she voices.  And one of my personal favorites this year, Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley.  In each of these examples, it is the expert narration of the author’s words that insists a story to be experienced in ways simply not obtainable through reading of the written word alone.  Audiobooks offer a uniquely enhanced reading experience.

Fortunately, I’m relieved to report that my husband finally made his peace with audiobooks, and now proudly proclaims, without qualifiers, that he has “read that one.”  His night table is still stacked with physical books, and books he wants to read will never run out, but thanks to audiobooks, he can get through more of them peacefully in his little time.

Neill Public Library has a wide collection of audiobooks inside the library or digitally through the Libby app.  We are always happy to assist you in selecting a great read to make that mundane house chore more enjoyable than you ever thought possible. Start listening to learn today.

Joanna Bailey
Director, Neill Public Library