July 30, 2012

Reading vs. Listening: Is listening to an audio book REALLY reading?

Recently, I have started listening to quite a few audio books.  Since the studio that I co-direct is approximately a 30 minute drive away, I do a lot of driving.  Once I add in my regular errands, I can easily listen to a complete audio book every one or two weeks.  In fact, over the last couple of months I have "read" five Diana Gabaldon novels, including:

You might recognize Gabaldon's name because I did a book review of the first book in her series, Outlander.  You might also remember that Outlander is a 625+ page treatise novel, and was the shortest novel in Gabaldon's series!  Truth be told, the size of her novels is actually what led me to "reading" the subsequent installations in audio book form.  

And it has really worked for me!  

Honestly, without the audio books, I don't think that I would have had the time - not to mention the dedication - to read the five (now six) additional novels in the Outlander series.  As much as I would have liked to, the truth is that I just don't have that many hours in my day to dedicate to sitting on the couch reading.

So here's the conundrum: 

While the purist bookworm in me says that my recent infatuation with audio books makes me a cheat, a phony, a poser, a hypocrite, and an outright charlatan, the realist in me says that I am simply fitting my love of reading into the difficult reality of a busy life.

Even more to the point:

Can I really even call what I listen to in the car "reading"?

To help me answer that question, I did a little a lot of research, and here are a few things that I learned:
  • Research that predates CD's suggests that reading and listening are strikingly similar cognitive processes.  For example, a 1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension - suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well, also. (Source
  • In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it. (Source)
  • Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with HEARING probably 150,000 years ago, and to some extent is "hard-wired." (Source)
  • Writing is 5,000-7,000 years old - partially piggybacking on the same circuits as hearing.  So, it's possible that LISTENING to speech is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotion brain center - hence more evocative and natural. (Source)
  • On the other hand, reading allows you to pause and reflect and go back to do a second take. (Source)

As for me, I agree with John Colapinto from The New Yorker because I, too, have "discovered that audio books are (among other things) an ideal way to get to know a work that [I couldn't], for whatever occult reason, bring [myself] to read in book form."

But, even with that said, the purist bookworm in me is still a little skeptical.

Still, more than 100 audio books later, I remain on the fence between reading and listening.  Audio books are good.  They're enjoyable.  They're wonderfully efficient.  But I wonder if the audio book experience is quite as full and as nuanced as reading.  Is the world I create as a listener as rich as the one I form as a reader?  Then again, there's [the audio book reader} and the intimacy of a performance even more personal than reading and more original than I would have conjured.  I cannot decide.

And if a professional reader and writer cannot decide, then why should I?!

Next up - an awesome recipe that I am SO excited to share with you all!  If you've been craving something with an Asian flare, you won't want to miss out on this one!

Question of the Day:

Have you ever listened to a book on tape?  If so, what was your experience?  Did you like it as well as reading a book in the traditional manner?  Did you like it better?  Did you feel like you were actually "reading"?

Tell me all about it in the "Comment" section below! :)

Ally and Bo


  1. Hey Ally and Bo,

    I ALWAYS listen to my books! I'm in the car over an hour each day for my commute. I find that it's a great way to get my "reading in". It took me a while though to get used to listening while driving, rather than just singing along with my horrible out of tune voice!

    1. It took me a while to get used to listening while driving as well...and it seems to always take me a few chapters before I really get into an audio book (whereas with traditional reading I seem to get hooked a little bit faster).

      Happy reading to you! :)