Audiobooks are Books, Too

Every so often, some iteration of the same debate pops up somewhere on the internet: does listening to audiobooks really count as reading?

Predictably, this takes the form of one person calling out another because they didn’t really read a book, they just listened to it. Audiobooks, in other words, Don’t “count” in the same way print books do.

Now, I’ve interacted with the written word in a lot of ways—eyes on print, fingers on Braille, and audio red by humans and synthesized by text-to-speech. So I have some thoughts about this. I wrote them out in a massive twitter thread, and a few people asked me to publish it here as well. Here it is (slightly cleaned up and with links to relevant resources).

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First Things: Words and their Jobs

First, let’s take a brief foray into linguistics and acknowledge that words do not have inherent meanings. People use and combine words to create and communicate meaning with others.

As semanticists say, “Words don’t mean. People mean.”

And in different contexts, people use words to mean different things. For the verb “to read,” there are three relevant usages to consider:

  1. reading as an ability
  2. reading as an activity
  3. reading as an accomplishment

To understand the differences and why they matter, we have to think historically. As time passes culture, technology, and lifestyles change in ways that create new communicative needs. Most of the time, these needs are met not by inventing wholly new words, but by adapting pre-existing words by analogy. The process by which this happens is seldom reasoned or systematic, tending rather to be intuitive and incidental.

Tactile writing is only two hundred years old and audiobooks are less than ninety, so it shouldn’t be surprising that our language has not fully adapted to their use. We are recycling the language of older technologies—spoken language and visual writing—to describe these new things and the ways we use them.

In the case of Braille and other tactile writing systems, the analogy with visual writing was clear and straightforward. Both used characters in a sequence to represent language across a page or other flat surface, and both were stable over time. Thus, the adoption of “reading” and “writing” language presented few problems outside of very technical contexts.

(Note—I don’t know if there were debates in the 1800s over whether the verb “to read” could be legitimately applied to Braille. If there were, that would be super interesting and I’d love to see them. In either case, reading quickly became the dominant way of talking about consuming Braille)

Controversy over audiobooks, I think, stems from uncertainty over which pre-existing technology they should be analogized to: printed texts or spoken language. The format is auditory, and thus resembles speech, but books, magazines, newspapers, signs, menus, etc. . are understood as essentially textual entities, which are read.

So in our language, do we privilege the format and delivery method, or the original/essential nature of the content?

The problem is different in each of the three usages of the verb “to read,” because each at its heart is trying to convey different information. Lets consider each in turn:

1) Reading as an ability

Basically, this answers the question “can you read?” In other words, if presented with a given physical object containing text, will you be able to decode its meaning?

There’s a lot to unpack about reading as an ability, but I’m not going to do it here. In this context, I think it’s safe to say that if you cannot read at least one print or tactile script in at least one language, you should not say you can read.

However, that doesn’t get to the heart of the debate or the ways people use the reading/listening distinction to flex on each other.

2) Reading as an activity

This answers the question “what are you doing?” Consider four answers:

  1. “I’m reading a book.”
  2. “I’m listening to a book.”
  3. “I’m listening to an audiobook.”
  4. “I’m reading an audiobook.”

If we imagine ourselves as sticklers who insist that print and audiobooks are so different that they require different verbs, then only the first and third answers make any sense at all. I mean, I suppose I could press my ear to my paperback copy of War and Peace, but I won’t get much out of it).

Now consider another scenario. I am pointing my phone at a large sign. I have the Seeing AI app up and it’s reading any text that comes into my camera’s view. You ask “what are you doing?” Two possible answers:

  1. “I am trying to see what that sign says.”
  2. “I am trying to read that sign.”

Now, you and I the imaginary sticklers know that both of these are absurd. I am not reading, in a literal sense, nor will I ever truly *see* what it says. What I should say is “I am pointing my phone at that sign so it can feed the image into an optical character recognition engine then translate the results into sound using text to speech software so that I can apprehend the information encoded on its surface.”

But the point of the first two answers is not to communicate the sum of their words. They are trying to communicate a more general point: I am trying to get the information from that sign into my head using a newfangled kind of technological mediation.

There are times when we can all turn off our inner literalists and realize that “reading” can be shorthand for getting textual information from a physical object into our heads.

So let’s not be sticklers, ok?

Of course, there may be times when it is important to specify the exact mode and method we used to apprehend some bit of text. This should be done to prevent or correct misunderstandings, but it applies equally to Braille and print.

For example, if a sighted someone asks to borrow your copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you might disappoint them by saying you have it on audio, but they would probably not be thrilled if you dropped off ten massive Braille volumes, either.

And that leads to usage number 3.

3) Reading as an accomplishment

This is where it gets real, because this is where people start adding value judgments and putting each other down.

The pertinent question here is “did you read X?”

I often hear people say things like “you didn’t actually read X, you just listened to it.” What’s the point of saying this? It does more than maintain a procedural distinction, it establishes a hierarchy where reading is superior and listening is inferior. It implies that listening to a book is not an accomplishment in the same way that reading it visually or tactilely is. In some sense, it doesn’t “count.”

The foundations of this hierarchy lie in cultural notions regarding the types of material that are usually conveyed in written and oral form and the relative merits of each. Books, especially, are prestige objects because of their historical associations with education and class privilege. Historical roots notwithstanding, though,, is this hierarchy justified? Is there any inherent superiority to reading words from a page by eye or finger as opposed to hearing them read or synthesized into speech?

It depends on our goals. In my research, I use Braille for close reading (especially in non-English languages) and audio to work quickly through long articles and books. Keeping two lists in my head—one of things I have read in Braille and one of books I have listened to—would be untenable and pointless.

This is because the point of saying I have read something is to indicate that I have interacted with the information it contains and internalized it to some degree. If it could be demonstrated that comprehension and retention rates differed significantly between auditory and visual/tactile book input, then I could be convinced that we should insist on the terminological distinction. But they do not.

Neurological imaging studies reveal that listening to audiobooks activates the same cognitive and emotional regions of the brain as reading print, and tests of comprehension and retention do not show significant differences between audio and print consumption of text.

Additionally, a moment’s reflection reveals that not all visual or tactile reading leads to the same learning. Sometimes print and Braille reading are done with care and attention, and sometimes they are done while unwilling or distracted. I have learned a lot from reading print books and articles, and I have finished others and realized immediately that I could not tell you anything about what I had just read. The same can be said for audio reading. Most often, the returns we get from the time and energy we invest in reading have more to do with our focus and attention than with inherent qualities of the medium or modality.

To my mind, then, insisting on a value distinction between print/Braille and audio is baseless and counterproductive. The value of tine spent reading is in the changes it makes to your base of knowledge and depth of thought. Neither of these result directly or necessarily from the part(s) of your body you use in the process. So as a flex?? To boost your own intellectual achievements and cast doubt on those of others? It doesn’t work and it doesn’t make sense.

To sum up, here are a few takeaways:

Should we learn Braille? YES. I hope nothing I’ve said here implies that I don’t think Braille is important. Learn Braille to the extent that you are physically and neurologically able, because it gives you the opportunity to interact with information in a greater variety of ways in a greater variety of circumstances. Even if all you can do is read bathroom signs and label your medications, that’s better than nothing. And if you gain the fluency to read whole books? Go to town!

But should we enforce the distinction between Braille and audio, relegating audio always to second place? NO. Indulge your curiosity. Read widely in whatever medium is most accessible to you. Expand your perspective with print, Braille, audio, whatever. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be held back. Read read read read read!

And come on, people, if someone says they read a book and you KNOW they listened to the audio, don’t call them out or “correct” them on it. There’s no point to it and it’s not a good look.

Basically, be as precise as you want but don’t try to prove Braille is important by denigrating audio.

Braille is important.

Audio is important.

Nitpicking each other’s language to enforce a baseless distinction between the two is not.

One thought on “Audiobooks are Books, Too

  1. I have to totally agree with you here. I, too, have heard the argument that if you’re listening to a book that is different from reading it. I wised up and got my first truly accessible smartphone a little over 2 years ago, and I’ve been a screen reader user since the mid-90s. I think it’d be rather inaccurate to say that the speech output of a screen reader is different than reading. Sure, there are times when I want to listen to music on my Mac or iPhone perhaps while doing apartment chores or other things. Thank you for being so eloquent about a point which has been raised time and time again. Braille is awesome, but so is speech.

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