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?