Saturday, August 04, 2007

Does Listening Count as Reading?

Is listening to an book the same experience as reading it?

Andrew Adam Newman in the New York Times finds out that many that many ardent readers look on audio books as cheating.

He gives the example of a librarian who admitted to her book club a couple of years ago:
They were discussing “A Fine Balance,” a novel set in India in the 1970s by Rohinton Mistry and an Oprah’s Book Club pick, when she told the group — all fellow teachers — that rather than read the book, she had listened to an audio version.
Her statement, she says, was met with stunned silence, until another member an art teacher told her she thought that was a total cop-out and would be like her painting by numbers.

Says Newman:
... the stigma persists that listening to books is Reading Lite.
Do you really get as much out of a book if you listen instead of read? This is actually something that I wonder about too.

The whole thing is a bit of an academic question in Malaysia where fiction audio books are not as easily available as the print versions.

If I don't listen to audio books, it's not because I'm snobbish about it but because I don't actually like to wear things in my ears, and in the car I wouldn't be able to give it my full attention, and at home would find myself trying to do another task at the same time and only half concentrating. I did try to listen to Sebastian Faulks Human Traces on audio (bought at very cheaply Big Bookshop) while I was cooking, but realised when my delicious stew was safely in the oven that I couldn't recall half of what I'd heard! Nevertheless I feel I should give audio books another chance!

My niece Lauren found reading a struggle (dyslexia I think - diagnosed late) and so audio books were a godsend. She's now a confident reader of print books.

So what have been your experiences of audio books? And do you think it's cheating?


Sham said...

I don't think it would be cheating. But for me, I would end up being distracted in the same way as you Sharon.
I would probably bake as I listen or something.
Plus I like re-reading lines....

mel said...

I agree with Sham about re-reading lines. Sometimes, I like to focus on a particularly well-chosen word or phrase (how clever of her to have said it this way, how apt, what imagery, etc) or to slowly think through a passage to appreciate it better. Can't do that with audio books.

mel said...

Not to mention I love the smell of paper & the feel of a book in my hands.

Poppadumdum said...

I found the full version of Lolita read by Jeremy Irons. He was PERFECT as Humbert, his voice dripping with lechery and pain and intelligence. But I listened to the discs with the book open before me! Nabokov's language is so beautiful and layered it's quite hard to merely listen... I suppose certain types of books are more suitable for audio books - chick lit and plot-driven books and self-improvement books.

Gette said...

I find it hard to pay attention to audio books. I tried a couple of times, but never got around to finishing it.

irene said...

I think listening is difficult because we're so used to multi-tasking. I wouldn't be able to pay full attention to it unless I forced myself to sit down and do nothing but listen. And if I were going to do that, I might as well read.

nel said...

I think listening to book audio is not as democratic as reading by yourself. Voices can be detected with other audio effect to have different listening experince. For example the right music to a different senario and the voice of the character is already there to detect the a person imagination. That apply same to movie when trying to potray a story.

Reading is in its rawest form and that is the beauty of it. A person is free to be as democratic to form his or her opinion when it is done Afterall, one reader opinion in their own perception to another can be very different at times even when they come together on the same subject.

Vergilya said...

I tried listening to Da Vinci's Code once but I couldn't through the first chapter. I tried Lisey's Story by Stephen King and I always fell asleep or get disoriented after a few paragraphs. So in the end I had to admit that I am not a 'listening' reader. I'm with everyone else who has to touch it, hold it and scan through it word for word. Whichever way, it's not cheating. It's like asking someone do you eat banana leaf rice with your fingers or fork and spoon?

midnite lily said...

that's an interesting question..
i agree with mel. nothing beats the feel of holding a book, and the smell of fresh print on paper ^_^

i thought audio books are for the visually challenged.

a nom de plume said...

My response is posted at

a nom de plume said...

Oh! And on topic of audiobooks, I have the poetry jam recorded in full on my mp3player if anyone wants to listen to it. It's... a bit long though. 2+ hrs. I haven't checked the file size. But I expect it to be...kind of large.

Mohani said...

i've never really listened to audio books (hard to find, expensive)though i've listened to a snippet of jeremy irons' reading lolita. the first page .. oh so sensual!

amir said...

Well, Neil Gaiman reading Neil Gaiman is fantastic.

I've been downloading recordings of his readings for the Angel Tour, for the benefit of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

You have never experienced Shoggoth's Old Peculiar until you have heard him read it and do the voices.

As soon as I get my next paycheck, I'm getting Signal To Noise.

Thing is, with readings in Malaysia, I find that most authors don't think about the audience at all. Their pronunciation, timing and pace are all shot to shit. Not to mention the low volume of their voices.

Back to audio books. I think audio books are cool. If I can get an audio version of all of my books, I'd be happy. The experience is different, and adds more available facets to a story.

Now, if only I can get Patrick Stewart to read Moby Dick...

Quinn said...

I thought about your question regarding books in print vs. audio. I'm rather biased as I am a librarian and archivist so nothing can ever replace something in print, in my opinion. I even find myself turning my TV's Closed Captioning option on with the sound turned low.

I never managed to get into the writings of David Sedaris until a friend suggested I listen to his contributions on This American Life, which is broadcast by Chicago Public Radio (also available via a free weekly podcast). It was hilarious. All the audio editions of his books are read by Sedaris himself.

Madcap Machinist said...

midnitelily said,

"i thought audio books are for the visually challenged"...

--or the aurally appreciative.

Madcap Machinist said...

nel's comments are pretty interesting.

reading is democratic/writing is a tyranny--Philip Pullman on the two sides of the coin.

bibliobibuli said...

i lost my long long comment just now and am having to retype this

am definitely with all who say that the feel and smell of the book is important to them - it certainly is a big part of the reading experience to me too. i think i would always want the print version of a book too. and i also love to reread favourite passages

irene - agree with you entirely! i actually think listening is harder for me than reading. there is always the temptation to do more than one thing at the same time.

love to hear authors read their work ... but they aren't always the best readers. i've been a bit disappointed hearing some of my favourite authors read from their books in very flat voices, not doing their own words justice

amir - what you say about writers reading is very true. can you think of anything that might help local writers better present their work? in large part it is a lack of confidence and a lack of practice. maybe i could send out an advice sheet? maybe a workshop would help? i know that when the british council has run workshops for performance poetry recently with UK poets there was training in microphone technique and presentation. of course doing lots of open mic stuff really helps writers too.

bibliobibuli said...


machinist - that's an interesting juxtaposition of articles!

quinn - I even find myself turning my TV's Closed Captioning option on with the sound turned low. there are definite signs of an addiction to the printed word there :-D

here's the link to chicago public radio, folks. go explore. (as i will myself - many thanks)

a nom de plume - could your recording be chopped in shorter segments? then they could be podcast. i'm thinking of putting up a website for "readings" and getting some recordings archived there. (machinist and chet ... wanna think about doing this for us? i'd pay ya both the going rate of course)

vergilya - It's like asking someone do you eat banana leaf rice with your fingers or fork and spoon? what a lovely metaphor! and true

Chet said...

>> a nom de plume - could your recording be chopped in shorter segments? then they could be podcast.

One way is to save each segment on its own - easier to load and listeners don't have to wait to listen to a particular segment.

If individual segments are still too big, save the recording in a lower bitrate. Most MP3s are recorded at 128kps. Resave to half that so that the recordings take up less bandwidth but without losing too much of the quality.

donny said...

I love audiobooks, and speaking for myself, I find listening to audiobooks when I'm driving on my daily commute (no heavy thinking required, more habitual driving really) suit me really well. I seldom complain when I'm caught in a jam, and I look forward to long drives to customer places too because I can dive back into whatever story I'm listening to at that time.

It really isn't that hard to get audiobooks wherever you are, especially when one has a good online connection to the net. I get my stash from, which used to have promotions occassionally, selling stuff at under USD$10.

However, I will say a couple of things about them:
1. The narrator will make or break an audiobook. I've listened to a lot of them, and generally authors make poor narrators. There is nothing like having an excellent book brought to life by an accomplished voice actor.

2. Books that has foreign language woven into the stories can make things a little more difficult to understand. For instance, Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana had snippets of German, Italian and French, and because I don't have the book, I had no idea how to find out the meaning of what had been said (i.e. can't use Babelfish). And Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov has Russion nicknames for characters introduced with their formal names! Yikes!

Other than that, it's a great way for me to catch up on books during those wasted hours on the road.

a nom de plume said...

Hmm... I could try to figure out how to use Goldwave. Been meaning to and now I have an excuse, hehe. Will get back to you on that. ;)

a nom de plume said...

By the way... just thought you might like to know, that a nom de plume is the dana-enabled lady and sister of scribbles from the 2005 Nano-meets ;P Heya chet, Sharon.

Chet said...

a nom de plume - oy, kiddo. How's the Dana? And how's scribbles? Still scribbling?

a nom de plume said...

The dana is actually a little under the weather. It seems to have a battery problem of some sort. I keep meaning to get it checked but things come up and get in the way. I use it as an external keyboard most of the time now though, having a laptop heh. Scribbles is alright. I think she's suffering from a writer's block though. Send hugs and well wishes.

Anonymous said...

"Thing is, with readings in Malaysia, I find that most authors don't think about the audience at all. Their pronunciation, timing and pace are all shot to shit. Not to mention the low volume of their voices."


But seriously, yes, it's flat and very soft isn't it ? why is that ? :)

I wanna hear Patrick Teoh reading any book in his "Kee Huat's Facts and Fancies" voice again. Now THAT was an interesting style of delivery.

Anonymous said...

Painting by Numbers online: Painting by Numbers