Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Unpopular Opinions: Audiobooks

Audiobooks are often a bit of a hot topic in the book community. Whether you are a blogger, booktuber, or avid Goodreads reviewer, everyone seems to have a very decided opinion on them. Every so often the age-old fight breaks out: "are audiobooks considered 'reading'?" and "can you count them towards a reading total/goal?"

Seeing a recent reemergence of this topic on my social media, I've decided to weigh in (is that really wise, Shayna?).

To me, audiobooks are...not reading. I don't mind someone casually saying they "read" a book when they listened to it, because it is often easier in conversation (just like I wouldn't say that I "read" a movie when I was viewing it with subtitles), but when actually discussing it and looking at it analytically, I don't feel like calling it reading is appropriate.

But before the pitchforks come out, let me explain.

Listening to audiobooks is "experiencing" a story. It takes effort just like reading does, and engages the imagination. Actually, from a cognitive perspective, listening to an audiobook and reading a print book are interpreted in an "almost identical" way by the brain (see "The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality" by Deniz, Fatma, et al.). 

I love this. Whether you are reading or listening to a story, you still need to take the words and interpret them, and allow these words to form images and understanding in your brain. So yes, I think it is absolutely a valid way to experience a story, and allows you just as much right to review it as someone who experienced it in print.

Delving a bit deeper, I do rather wish that reviewers would mention whether they listened to or read a book when reviewing it. Why? Because from my experience, the version of an audiobook that a reader is listening to (see what I did just there? Let's get back to that later though...) can highly impact both the enjoyment and the interpretation of a work. This is also true of books that are studied in schools versus those read purely for enjoyment. If you listened to it, I really want to know the narrator - I've had books that I have loved that I couldn't stand in audiobook.

Another common argument is that those listening to audiobooks are lazy or are not "putting in the effort" that readers of print material are. Now, bypassing the previously mentioned scientific article proving that that is not the case according to our brains, let's look at it further. 

On a personal note, I find audiobooks overall more difficult. When I find the right one, that's awesome, and I enjoy being able to experience a story this way, but for me, I don't usually find it agrees with my lifestyle and how my brain likes to flit about. When I am sitting down with print material, I can't really do much else. If my mind wanders, I am just sitting there, staring at a book, and I will realize this and put it down. I can't really get too far ahead of myself, because I am not going to turn the pages when I haven't absorbed any of it. For an audiobook, I will play a game on my phone, or do dishes, or go for a walk...and often miss large chunks of things, not realizing, or need to rewind in order to figure out what they said when that huge transport truck passed me on the road. Their portability makes them great, but for me, it gives me an "excuse" to not be as engaged. So I am always impressed by people who work through lots of audiobooks and know what's gone on - because I tend to lose a lot of the information.

In risk of making this post far too long, there is also the matter of learning styles and genres to consider. With auditory learning being my least preferred style, I find it more difficult to absorb a story this way. However other listeners may get the most out of content delivered in this fashion. And I personally think any book that I need to refer back to sections of (ex. high fantasy) is very difficult in audio formats, where in print I can flip back and forth. So anyone who can keep track of it all in audio sure has some impressive brain power in my books *wink wink*.

The last thing I really want to talk about where audiobooks are concerned, is the matter of print disabilities. Going back a few paragraphs, I unconsciously referred to those listening to audiobooks as "readers". We don't really have a term for someone who experiences a story through other formats, and that isn't truly fair. So either by linguistical default, those listening to audiobooks are readers, or we need a new term that encompasses this style.

Yet, not calling the activity "reading" is somewhat targeting, isn't it? Just like those with any other disability have the right to disclose or not as they choose, why would we wish to take that same choice away in this case? No, not everyone who enjoys listening to audiobooks has a print disability (there are so many great reasons to enjoy this format), but the use of a new term may bring up questions or automatic assumptions about a person's capabilities, rather than just the understanding that this is their preference.

The long and short of the matter is that I don't have the answers. Although I like things to be as accurate as possible, and look at things often based on strict definition, I also do see another side of things - where the world isn't exactly as black and white as my analytical brain sometimes wishes it could be.

Is there anything else you think I should consider? 


  1. My problem with not counting audiobooks as reading is highlighted in your final few paragraphs, that doing so would target disabled readers who can't read in print. And I'm not only thinking in disability here, but buying a print book is a lot more expensive than borrowing a library audiobook, so there is a matter of who can afford print books as well. To me, if you are enjoying a book in whatever format, it counts as reading. I find it difficult to engage in audiobooks for the reasons you mentioned, that if I get caught up in other things, I miss chunks of the book. However, if people listen to them and enjoy them, then I say: all power to you.

    I actually would like to leave the audiobooks/print books debate to bed. I think when we bring it up, we always run the risk of making people who enjoy audiobooks or need them feel bad. Of course, I'm not saying this is in the case of your post, Shayna. I really appreciated this post because it got me thinking about how passionate I am about this subject, haha! But I think overall, we do need to let people enjoy reading in whatever way they feel fit. There is way too much judgement on book twitter, and we could use a little more love.

    Thanks for the engaging post, Shayna! And I'm sorry if any of my comments sound like I'm signaling you out. This is of course not the case, I'm only speaking in generalities here. I hope you don't find any of my comments too harsh, you're a fabulous blogger and a great friend :)

    1. Not harsh at all! I appreciate your passion, and taking the time to read and comment. As long as people are discussing things in a mature way and not attacking each other, then I think it's important to hear other opinions.

      It's funny because I never even thought much about it until I was present on bookish social media. I hope it comes across in my post, but I am completely for audiobooks and people using them for whatever reason (necessity, enjoyability, speed, etc.) and definitely don't judge. For me, it is more of a linguistics conflict (something I happen to be super passionate about ;) ) and wish I could find a solution that worked to not conflict with that - accurately identifying the meaning of the method, but that also didn't target people.

      There are a lot of cruel people out there, and a lot of people that are rather unforgiving towards situations or reasons that they don't understand - you are exactly right, "we could use a little more love".

      Thanks so much for adding to the discussion!

  2. Alas, I don't really have an opinion on this, because I don't do audiobooks. While I'm fluent in written English, it would be too much work for me to actually listen to one. Then again, I don't think I would like to have a book read to me (and yeah, this is probably ableist - I have a choice in the matter, while others don't). Anyhow, I did understand the point that you were making 🙂.

    1. I've listened to a few audiobooks that I enjoyed, but it definitely takes me a bit to get used to some narrators. I haven't done too many in this format, just because I find it doesn't fit as well with my habits, but I'm glad they are becoming more and more readily available.

      Oh man - I can't imagine trying to do that in a second language! Kudos to anyone who can!

  3. I think you're right technically- listening to a book is not the same as "reading" it per se, even though I know some will disagree. But they are both "experiencing" the book, albeit it in different ways, like you say. And I have absolutely the same problem- I get doing other things and soon realize I've missed things, and have to go back... for that reason audio rarely works for me.

    "can highly impact both the enjoyment and the interpretation" I think this is true.

    Your final points though- I agree with those too. :) So yeah... paperbackprincess' comment and your reply had me nodding my head as well. I wouldn't want disabled readers to feel singled out or marginalized... I think a lot of life is seeing the "grey areas" :)

    1. I'm glad there's someone else as easily distractible as I am! ;)

      Yeah, I recall one time I was listening to an audiobook and I HATED it until I switched to the print version. And I've also had books that I couldn't quite get through, where listening to it helped propel me forwards because the reader was really engaging.

      Thanks so much for reading!