Audiobooks v. "Real" Reading

Like any writer in the world, I’m a compulsive reader.

Unlike many readers, I’m also an audiobook addict.

My delight in being read to started in the womb, from what I’ve been told. My mother read to me while she was pregnant, and after I was born, read to me for at least an hour a night for much of my very early childhood.

This did not interfere with me learning to read. In fact, I think it was rather the opposite. While not a precocious reader (I learned in first grade), I caught on to the idea of letters and sounds very swiftly, and became an unusually fast reader.

But in spite of the stacks of books I took home from the library every week, I still enjoyed being read to. When I was fifteen and had mono, I was too weak to read (which was a frustrating experience), Mom very patiently read the entire novelization of E.T. the extraterrestrial to me. (Hey, it was all I was up to. Me being too sick to read was dangerously ill, let me tell you!)

Some people are concerned that if you get into audiobooks, you won’t read “real” books as much. I’ve not found this to be so. When I go to the library, as I do most weeks, I will check out an audiobook. I also check out four or five print books at the same time.

I do love the audiobook experience for many writers — Terry Pratchett being tops on the list. There are Discworld novels I’ve never read in print, but have enjoyed very much in audio. (Just finished Making Money, as it happens. It’s a fun romp, and has a very funny answer to many of the Vetinari fans!) For that matter, I’ve never held a print copy of Anansi Boys in my hand, much less read it, but it’s one of my favorite books. I find that being read aloud to often has a dimension to the experience that enhances rather than takes away from the experience of reading.

Reinhard Engels, in his Audiodidact podcast, had an interesting thing to say about audiobooks that I rather like:

Some people seem to think that listening is qualitatively inferior to reading. That the written word is somehow a purer medium. This is nuts. If anything, it’s the other way around. We think of the written word as this old fashioned, quasi sacred thing in comparison with say the internet, but writing was once high tech too. Writing is just a very lossy compression and storage technology for speech.

There’s an extra dimension, though, that I think it should behoove the writer of fiction to pay attention to. The very best writers’ works translate very well to spoken word. If you can’t read it aloud well, it’s generally not very good writing. I’ve started using it as an editing test with good results. This essay, for instance, has had some changes made because you can read the sentence, but cannot say it. <grin>I have placed information vital to the survival to the Rebellion in the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it…1

Audiobooks need not be expensive. My public library has audiobooks for download, even! Check with yours. Many do. I am sorry to say that they have not been licensed with iTunes, which is a pain, as I cannot transfer them to my iPod without the rather expensive (in time and money) hack of burning them to a CD an importing them that way. Still, I have a laptop and can plug it into my house’s stereo system if I want to listen while moving around the house. I was a member of Audible for about a year, and found it a less expensive way to enjoy audiobooks.

I encourage anyone who loves to read, though, to try audiobooks. It doesn’t have to be for fiction. I find them a great way to learn while doing another task that does not require my brain but does require my hands. You can download lectures on lots of subjects, you can learn a language, or you can just have fun.

1Carrie Fisher once commented that she hated this line, as it is stilted and difficult to deliver well.

4 Replies to “Audiobooks v. "Real" Reading”

  1. The “free culture” movement has produced a lot of free audio books, many of them available at The best thing is you don’t need an iPod to listen to them -many people just listen on their computer, and some burn Mp3’s to CDs. Of course the cost of generic MP3 players is falling dramatically – you don’t need the ritzy Apple logo to listen!

    Anyway, I have a fantasy audio novel that I am releasing as a podcast – it is Heart of the Hunter – to hear it, just click on my name here 🙂

  2. Random thoughts popping into mind :
    I’m all for using audio books after you’ve developed a love of reading, or if you are a competent reader who has no desire to pick up an actual book for whatever reason.

    But I am seeing a disturbing trend with audio books.
    Children are receiving them instead of REAL books. They’re listening to Harry Potter or what have you , alone, with earphones, instead of being read to, instead of working their way through the book, learning mastery of the written word as pleasure while diving into another world.

    Some people are ‘born readers’ – through them, the term ‘whole word reading’ came about. They seem to love reading no matter how they come to it, and they simply READ – they grok it, and easily and quickly.
    More though, need to learn to read by decoding the structure- phonics, etc.

    Being read to is a HUGE key in instilling the love of reading – for those who find it easy to learn, that love can be picked up without parental reading to, but I do find that kinda sad- NOT reading to the kids…

    But audio books are NOT ‘being read to’.
    You can’t stop the audio book and ask it a question, snuggle up to it, or get the audio book’s help in sounding out a tough word as you follow along.

    Audio books are fine for readers – for young children learning to read , it strikes me as equivalent to propping the bottle…. perhaps this is why some folks are opposed to audio books.

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