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.