My favorite book is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. It’s been with me through the best of times and the worst of times (different book, I know). It has shaped who I am, and it’s probably the reason I write for a living.
There’s just one small catch.
I’ve never read it. Probably never will.
Okay, to be clear, it has been read to me — but, for many people, that’s not the same thing. Have you ever noticed that people tend to add a lot of qualifiers when they talk about books they’ve listened to? They start saying things like “well,” and “actually,” “technically,” and “only “ — “Well, actually, I only listened to the audiobook version.”
Reading has become the standard way to experience a book. Listening is for chores or long car trips. It’s the fallback — the thing you do if you can’t read. I find that rather troubling.
After all, when did we decide that there is a universal right or wrong way to interact with stories and ideas? We don’t buy books because we like paper — we buy them for what’s on the paper. We buy them because we are human, and humans love stories. Stories help us understand ourselves and our world just a bit more clearly. They teach us, challenge us, and go great with cups of tea.
A book, like film, paint, or clay, is a medium for conveying stories and ideas. It’s impossible to make a universal claim about the quality of one medium compared to another.
We can’t say that one medium is better than the other. We can, however, say that one medium is better “for me.”
I prefer audiobooks because, when I was in school, I was dubbed an “auditory learner.” That essentially means that I see the world through my ears. The difference between my experience of a book versus an audiobook is akin to the difference between streaming a movie on your laptop at home and seeing it in IMAX (to use a visual example). It’s like Skyping with a friend versus being in the same room with them — like listening to a song on Spotify versus seeing the artist perform live.
I listen to audiobooks not because it’s easier or more fun, but because listening to a story means experiencing that story to its fullest. It removes the barriers between me and what the author is trying to tell me.
But, you might say, what if the author didn’t intend his or her work to be communicated orally? I think we can agree that what the author intended was for you to be moved by the story they’ve written, and the ideas they introduce. If that means listening to the book instead of reading it, then “have at it,” is what I imagine they would say.
In the end, I think the question we should be asking ourselves is not: “how are we reading,” but: “what are you learning?” “Are you enjoying it, and if so, why?” If what follows is a nice conversation, then nothing else matters.
This post was guest-written by Elyse Kamibayashi, who is forever indebted to her mom for supporting her obsession with audiobooks.