I Hear America Reading: Why Listening to Audiobooks is not “Cheating”

Anthony Aycock
“A man walking with a black rucksack on a busy street in New York, Texas” by Henry Be on Unsplash

Lolita was my first audiobook. I had never read it, but being an English major, I had read about it, which had always seemed adequate. Then I stood in the library one day, and I saw the Lolita audiobook — 10 CDs snug in their sleeves like campers in sleeping bags. I thought, why not?

Best. Decision. Ever.

Nabokov first played with the idea of an older man attracted to a sexually precocious girl in his 1926 short story “A Nursery Tale.” He returned to the idea a number of times over the next 30 years, giving it its fullest expression in Lolita (Olympia Press, 1955). The version I heard was recorded in 2005 by Jeremy Irons, who had played Humbert Humbert in the 1997 movie adaptation.

It took a little getting used to (I kept expecting Irons to interrupt the narration to whisper, “I killed Mufasa”), but once I did, I found his performance riveting. “Irons takes you completely inside the mind of Humbert Humbert,” reads a spot-on review, “and with skill and subtlety makes you loathe him and sympathize with him at the same time.” What I liked best was when Lolita spoke. The best narrators use different voices for different characters, and for Lolita, Irons did a whiny, what-EVER falsetto that made me laugh out loud.

I drive an hour and a half to work each way. I’ve been doing it for years. Ninety minutes is a long time alone amid the mind-numbingness of driving, and so, being indifferent to talk radio, and in the days before podcasts were as common as houseflies, I started listening to audiobooks. It was a way to pass the time; now it is an obsession. I can’t drive 5 minutes to the supermarket without hearing a few lines of whichever book I’m on. The sound of the reader — or, for some books, readers — is the best of both worlds, providing the camaraderie of a human voice without the need to putter through small talk.

All I have to do is sit and listen. I’m like a king having a play performed just for him.

I am not alone in my audio obsession. According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales in 2016 were up 18.2%, making 3 consecutive years of a double-digit increase. And yet, there are people who see audiobooks as inferior to their ink-and-paper counterparts. These people are wrong, of course, and to understand why, we need to discuss the false dichotomy between reading and listening.

Reading vs. Listening

Reading swells your vocabulary. It boosts your GPA. It improves memory and analytical thinking. It makes you more empathetic. It reduces stress. People who read are more likely to vote, exercise, and be culturally engaged, and older people who read are two-and-a-half times less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease. Oh, and it can help you get dates, as “we tend to think of smart people as socially confident, wealthy and witty. There’s even a ‘halo effect’ that makes us perceive intelligent people as being more attractive.”

It is no secret, then, that reading is steeped in benefits. But are the benefits the same for listening to a book being read?

The short answer is yes, although audiobooks have a bit of a PR problem. Many people see them as “cheating,” a viewpoint that University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham hates. “‘Cheating’ implies an unfair advantage,” he writes, “as though you are receiving a benefit while skirting some work. Why talk about reading as though it were work?” Although reading and listening are different acts, the brain does more or less similar things during each: decoding and language processing. Decoding, Willingham explains, is “figuring out words from print,” while language processing “refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language.”

Is there a difference between reading comprehension and listening comprehension? No, according to Melissa Dahl, who says that “[l]isteners and readers retain about equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed.” Decoding, of course, is something that occurs only during reading, so in that sense, reading is more work. However, the extra work is not burdensome because by about fifth grade, decoding is second nature.

Think about it. When you read a road sign, an email, or a credit card receipt, are you aware that you’re reading? No. You just do it. The process is so automatic that it is hard to turn off. Ever tried looking at words and not reading them? It’s nearly impossible. (Don’t believe me? Try this experiment. Try it! I triple-dog dare ya!)

Photo by s_herman

I feel just as immersed in the narrative when I listen as when I read. There are only two or three books I have ever read more than once, which is an important act. “When rereading,” writes Christopher B. Nelson, “you already know the big picture and can pay close attention to the details. … Your imagination gets a workout, judging whether it was adequate to the book on the first pass, or whether you need to revise your previous images.” I could fill a neighborhood library, however, with the number of books I have reheard, delighting in the plot, the characters, and the language for a second time.

Savoring Language

Lincoln versus Douglas. Buckley versus Vidal. Kennedy versus Nixon. These are some of history’s most rousing debates. Weiss versus Tarnoff is not as iconic, but when Sabrina Rojas Weiss and Brooke Tarnoff squared off in 2014 in The Great Audiobook Debate, fans of the spoken word took notice.

Tarnoff begins by admitting that she now embraces audiobooks after years of an “irrational, exclusive loyalty to printed books.” The problem, she says, is distractibility. “In our post-MTV-generation world, how many people do you know who watch TV without a tablet nearby? Who eat dinner with their friends without a surreptitious email check every 10 minutes?” Amid the din of this world, it is easy to reread a printed passage. But rewinding an audiobook to a specific point? Tarnoff wonders if this is something a listener would always do.

Weiss agrees that distractions can be difficult, and she acknowledges another challenge by saying she listens while doing other things. “I know that all sorts of science has debunked the idea of effective multitasking,” she explains, “but it also never offered me an alternative. As a working mother, every time I sit down to read, I’m distracted by guilt that I’m not doing the thousand other things I should be.”

Listening, then, is the antidote to booklessness.

In a decade or so of listening to books, I have often rewound a few seconds to hear a passage again. It is never a struggle for me. As for multitasking, I agree it would be perilous to listen while assembling an IKEA dresser, trying to solve the Riemann hypothesis, or reading the president’s tweets. But it has never been difficult for me to do while driving or walking.

Tarnoff raises an interesting idea when she says that listening “takes away the element of lingering over perfect sentences.” Savoring language is one of the joys of reading, and this can be lost without having the words in front of you. However, you gain something else by listening: You hear words used the right way.

In cases where writing and speaking diverge, prosody, or changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm in speech, might help comprehension. An example is Shakespeare. When Juliet says “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she isn’t wondering where Romeo went. “Wherefore” means “why,” so she’s questioning why he is called Romeo, and why names, which are arbitrary, could matter at all. This meaning may be lost on the page, but an actress can communicate it through her voice.

Active Voices

I’m standing in the public library, scanning the shelves of audiobooks. I pick one up and turn it over. What am I looking for? The plot summary, of course. I wouldn’t want a boring book. I also check out the author bio. Last, I look at who reads the book. Some are read by actors, some by the authors themselves.

You might think authors are not the best choice to read their own work, but many do a terrific job. I could listen all day to Bill Bryson. Born and raised in the American Midwest, but having lived about half his life in England, Bryson has an accent that is a gallimaufry of Old and New World. I own his recording of A Walk in the Woods, and I have listened to it at least 50 times. There are a few instances when I hear his lips pull back as he reads, which makes me think he is smiling.

I love the idea of a writer enjoying his own work. It’s like a long-married couple who are still hot for each other.

Jeff Lindsay is another outstanding reader. He has recorded all eight of his novels about antihero Dexter Morgan, the Miami blood-spatter analyst who spills as much gore as he studies. The books are first-person accounts narrated by Dexter, so when Lindsay reads, I feel as if I am hearing Dexter himself. Plus Lindsay’s voices are wonderful, especially his voice for Dexter’s sister Deborah. He makes her sound insecure and pissed off at the same time, a perfect encapsulation of her personality.

And David Sedaris. Reading his work is like reading the text of a play: You’re experiencing it in its non-preferred medium. Sedaris got his start on National Public Radio, and now he reads to audiences in bookstores, in opera houses, and on television. Reading David Sedaris is great; listening to him is a master class in comedic performance.

Voices are my favorite aspect of an audiobook. One of the best readers in the business is Jim Dale, narrator of all seven Harry Potter novels. There are hundreds of characters in these books, and Dale creates a different voice for each one, winning two Grammy Awards in the process. The voices help me know who is speaking, and they make the performance more interesting, like an old-fashioned radio drama.

Plus they add to the characterization. Rubeus Hagrid, the half-giant who delivers Harry Potter to Hogwarts and acts as a big brother to him, Ron, and Hermione, was written with a West Country accent, saying “arr” for “yes,” “be” for “is” or “are,” and “me” for “my.” Scotland-born Robbie Coltrane, who played Hagrid in the movies, did away with the accent. Dale restored it, thus adding a dimension to the class conflict that is a major theme in the novels. Aristocratic wizards such as Lucius Malfoy hate Hagrid, thinking him a simpleton. This prejudice is likely reinforced by Hagrid’s West Country accent, which has long carried a social stigma.

“Hagrid” by Thomas Nugent is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Before the invention of writing, there was the oral tradition. Tales of gods and heroes were passed down through the generations, told with brio by storytellers who knew how to ensnare an audience. Audiobooks return us to that tradition. You’ve read the pros and cons of the medium. Now try it. Go to Audible and sign up for a 30-day trial. Or check out the offerings at your public library.

Is listening to audiobooks cheating? No. But you are cheating yourself if you don’t try this fascinating technology.

Anthony Aycock

Written by

Librarian. Teacher. Writer. A fun guy notwithstanding.

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