People in a book club ganged up on one of the members for enjoying an audiobook rather than traditionally reading the choice of the moment. The consensus, as described by a New York Magazine writer named Melissa Dahl, was that the woman was cheating. What do you think? The question is worth pondering when audiobook sales are growing faster than those of paper books and e-books.
For an answer, you need to consider that traditional reading is a multi-step process. You must decode the bunches of letters on the page, and separately you must then figure out what the related words mean. Decoding happens only with traditional reading, says Dr. Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor as well as author of Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. And for most adult readers—there’s a difference between grownups and kids, whose reading skills are still developing in a major way—the process is automatic. So if you’re thinking strictly about the brainwork required, you’re really not cheating, a point he makes in a thoughtful blog post. Significantly, research (here and here) shows that little difference typically exists between absorption of text in print vs. audio.
But what if your child suffers from dyslexia or a similar challenge and can’t decode so easily (an issue that a commenter on the New York article raises)? Or what if you do? It’s easy to get moralistic. I can recall a low-vision person telling me how relentless his teachers were in forcing him to read traditionally, when he absorbed audio information so much more easily. It becomes a question of the child’s reading needs vs. her need to absorb information. Which comes first? And under what circumstances?
Now back to the cheating issue for people without such print impairments.
As a nonspecialist, I myself think we’re in “It depends” territory. If you’re simply soaking up uncomplicated information from a prosaic easy-to-read book or immersing yourself in a thoroughly nonliterary novel, then no cheating is happening. You’re not cheating in terms of bragging to the world about your accomplishments, and you are not even cheating yourself. Granted, the more you read traditionally, the better you become at it—but as Dr.Willingham sees it, the improvements are incremental for adults.
On the other hand, you may be both cheating yourself and reducing the legitimacy of your brags if you speed through an audiobook without taking the time to revisit sentences or paragraphs that you didn’t understand. Also, what about more literary books where the style, as read in print, may count?
That said, I see no reason to moralize about these issues.
If a book club member prefers an audio edition and can still contribute intelligently to the discussion—especially after having taken time to use “rewind” or the equivalent on difficult passages—then no significant cheating has occurred regardless of the style factor. She has simply enjoyed the book her way.
Image credit: From Playster.
Another “it depends” aspect has to do with whomever is doing the reading that is recorded for an audio book. Is it the author? Is it someone who has studied the work and has a deeper than usual grasp of the story, content, whatever such that those insights come across in the reading?
Then what about kids who read Classic Comics? Are they cheating somehow? Or how about those who are adept at speed reading?
Heck, we might as well throw in movies based on text and listening to storytellers who regale us as we sit around actual or digital campfires.
Basically, we are asking what criteria are relevant to experiencing fiction and non-fiction. How or when do we know that we are doing it well?
I like the criterion you used: (can) contribute intelligently to the discussion but we might take this further by trying to apply the various taxonomies in the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains to our thinking about this.
@Frank: Thanks for your insights. Yep, the variables go on and on. Meanwhile I’ll return to one of the points I made in the post. Not all readers are alike. Some, regardless of what “average” is, will learn better through audio. What’s more, that might be true even if the audio is simply TTS instead of a skilled and conscientious narrator. Also, what about a mix of audio and synched old-fashioned text, which Amazon offers through its immense reading option?
When I was a young man long ago, I had a friend who claimed he would never read a book in translation because, by its very nature, a translation was a distortion of the original and cheating; if he wanted to to read books that weren’t written in English, he would learn the foreign language. If I’d followed suit, I would have had to become a truly amazing polyglot to read Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Homer, Stanislaw Lem, Primo Levi, Yukio Mishima, Jose Saramago, and a half dozen or more authors. Following the same logic, I would not listen to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations since Bach wrote the music for harpsichord not piano.
Listening to an audio book may not be entirely analogous to traditional reading, but it has its purpose and place. Since 1997 I have listened to nearly seven hundred unabridged audio books which include literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction, and a smattering of poetry. If I’d gone with the idea that audio books are cheating – verboten! – then that would essentially be like erasing 700 books from my mind. That would be a huge loss of knowledge – a vast pit of emptiness.
Perhaps the book deficit could have been filled with other information such as more music or contemplating the meaning of bumper stickers while stuck to rush hour traffic. However, I think my experiences with audio books eclipse whatever I would have gained with some other thing filling the voided space when audio books now reside.
@Greg: Great points. And they jibe perfectly with my belief that TTS is so often better than no audio at all. What’s more, yes, exposure to more titles is obviously better—one reason why I love E, with all the reading choices it conveniently opens up.
Cheating or not cheating! Who cares! If you enjoy it do it.
I read ebooks but when I had vision problems for a decade I listened to audiobooks. Quite a few people thought I was cheating. I never really cared. They don’t get to decide what’s right for me. It never really bothered me and in discussions about books with them they’d wonder from time to time whether my view was colored by the medium. I didn’t really know the answer to that and said so and the discussion continued. It never turned into a problem.
So my answer is to those people it’s cheating and that’s fine. To me it’s not cheating and that’s also fine. Why make it an issue?
@Barry: Because, alas, others have made a fuss—and because of the interesting nuances. Of course we still basically agree. Let’s not condemn others for enjoying books the way they choose.
I’m able to listen to audiobooks at work. Now what do you think management would say if I held a book up to read while working on my machine? As for “cheating”, when did reading become a sporting event, a game or a test? I’ve found that a well narrated book can enhance the enjoyment – The #1 Ladies detective stories are all the better for the narrator’s wonderful lilting voice. I’m book rich, I can listen at work and read at home.
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
Not cheating, but I wonder if an audiobook is an equivalent experience to reading. I know in my case it is not. I cannot extrapolate from my experience to others but I am suspicious there is not equivalence.
If I am doing anything at all while listening to an audiobook I either am not paying attention to what I am doing or not paying attention to what I am hearing. Take driving. If I am listening closely to the book I am not paying proper attention to the road. If I am paying proper attention to driving I am missing content from the audiobook. I will back up a bit to catch what I missed but will miss it again. I do not feel “I” can listen safely to an audiobook while driving.
Doesn’t this happen to anyone else? Or does my brain have squirrely wiring?
@Dana: Driving, first! As for what’s “reading,” I’m less interested in precise definitions than I am in encouraging people to read. That said, if you haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the book, then you really can’t say you read it. Remember, I talked about people being able to contribute intelligently to a discussion about the book.
David, I understand your point. I just wonder how prevalent my experience is. Unless I just sit down and listen to an audio book I cannot say I have read the book. Doing any sort of activity while listening means I am missing a lot. I just do not know if I am sitting out there on the edge of the bell curve or in the comfortable middle.
Really seeking feedback on that.
I’m able to do other things while listening to audio books. For example, washing dishes, walking the dog, and driving, et al. But there are limits.
Case in point, driving; I don’t listen and drive on unfamiliar streets. The daily commute is fine because it’s the same thing every day, but I turn off the audio book on detours or going to new locations.
I remember reading that driving is actually very much learned and automatic behavior done on a subconscious level – it’s when driving breaks out of autopilot mode that I turn off the book because I’m too focused to properly listen.
I’ve never been in an accident while driving and listening. Ok, I was rear ended in sudden stop, but I stopped in time not to rear end the car in front of me.
Dishes and dog walking are also autopilot activities which I have to do often enough.
Try to listen while doing something simple and routine, what ever that may be in your life, and get your mind accustomed to hearing and doing at the same time. Pick easy books that you’ve read before and train your brain.
Since I have to be doing nothing for listening to an audiobook to work for me I might as well be reading the old fashioned way which is what I do. I happily agree the audiobooks work for people, I am not one of them. (grin) I want to believe that people are fooling themselves in thinking reading an audiobook is equivalent to reading a paper or ebook. But I know I most certainly am wrong.
As for driving while listening, I have never had an accident while listening but while the car remains in its lane and at the proper speed I am not attending to potential unexpected events. So I don’t do that any more. Wise on my part. I experience the same phenomenon talking on the phone while driving, hands free or not. My brain is just not wired to do it safely.
The whole argument seems silly. The reader does what works for the reader. Arguing that one has the better/more valid experience is pointless. My best experience is reading paper or ebooks. I am a universe of one. The rest of the multiverse can do what it wants.
Let’s talk about what really matters, Pepsi or Coke? The answer of course is Dr. Pepper
I’m not sure I understand why this ever became a moralistic issue. Surely if people are ‘reading’ or listening, your story is being consumed, so from an author’s point of view surely it’s a win win situation. Imagine if all those peope who listened did not have access to audiobooks but were not able to read the print version for whatever reason – time, place, opportunity, ability – imagine all the opportunities lost to get your name/view/novel/information across to as wide a readership as possible. Isn’t that the aim of publishing a book? Many people listen while driving and due to busy family lives would not have the opportunity to read the printed version. I have spent many years horizontal due to a back injury, unable to read books in print, audiobooks were and still are a godsend to an avid reader like myself, I still can’t hold a book and so still rely on audio or sometimes Kindle if it is balanced on an easel. Audio is not ideal. So often I have been frustrated by the narrator’s inability to pronounce certain words correctly or by their tone or intonation, but with others they have made the experience even more enjoyable. The biggest drawback is not being able to look back and re-read certain paragraphs. But I wouldn’t be without them.
Apologies for the long response, my first visit and I go off on a rant! ☺️
With audio fiction I sometimes am willing to listen to different genres (something I never do when reading for real). Listening to audio fiction can help you to get through dense prose (I’m thinking Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy) to the main action. Admittedly though, I miss a lot of plot and character details when listening to fiction, but you can appreciate the crispness of the prose.
Audio fiction does feel a little like cheating — although anything which lets you fit in more literary works is a good thing. For the record, Bill Bryson’s book “A walk in the woods” in the greatest and funniest audio book I have ever read — later I glanced at the physical book — and wonder if re-reading the whole book would make me notice different details.
I find it somewhat cumbersome to follow short stories in audio form, so I think long forms are more suitable for audio. I must confess that I’d prefer to read an important book rather than listen to it — if I could do it.
One another thing. I like dramatic reading — with more than one reader, or light sound effects. I remember listening to a Star Trek novel as an audio book — I was a Peace Corps worker overseas, so my entertainment choices were limited. Gates McFadden did the reading, and there were all these sound effects from the show which contributed to the story.
You are on point there but there are few differences when you do reading the book or listening to an audiobook. First, reading a lot can do a single task one at the time, but when you do listening, you can do a multi-tasking work at the same time, while driving, while eating, while taking bath or even playing with pets. Second, reading can enhance your reading and comprehension skill especially with students while listening, your hearing, attentive and cognitive skills will enhance.