On the Audiobook Debate

Are audiobook listeners…cheaters?

Photo by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash

Audiobooks. Whether or not to listen to them seems to be a pretty controversial topic within the reading community. People are surprisingly polarized in their opinions about audiobooks: either they’re die-hard fans or they hate them with a burning passion.

Weird, right?

Some people think that listening to audiobooks is a really convenient way to get some reading done while washing the dishes or driving, while others are firmly in the camp that believes that books aren’t meant to be heard, or that it’s cheating to listen because then you haven’t technically “read” the book.

You know the type: “Oh, you listened to it? So you didn’t actually read it.” And then they give you an ever-so-slightly condescending look, which makes you feel completely dismissed as a reader.

I was once in a book club and the leader was pretty against audiobooks. I don’t know if she thought that it was cheating per se, but she did firmly believe that it lessened the reading experience.

So, here are my thoughts on audiobook-listening.

First and foremost, I have a bit of an emotional connection with audiobooks.

When I was young, my mom and I used to drive from Texas to South Carolina once or twice a year to visit my grandparents, and we would pick up a few “book-on-tape” cassettes or CDs at Cracker Barrel. Back then, you could rent an audiobook there and then return it to any Cracker Barrel in the country.

I remember one such time after we’d made our audiobook choices (I’d probably chosen a Nancy Drew book— let’s be honest), I happily played my book on my Sony Discman (does anyone else remember how those things used to skip like crazy?).

My mom had picked The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which was a new release back then. She popped the two-sided disc into the CD player in her Toyota minivan and began to play it. At some point, I found myself pausing my book and listening to hers instead.

Naturally, I kept my headphones in so that she didn’t know what I was doing. I’m very stealthy, I know.

But I still remember to this day, over a decade later, how riveted I was by Brown’s story, and it didn’t matter that I auditorily consumed it rather than reading it on a page.

Many people argue against audiobooks because they believe that stories aren’t meant to be heard. What these people don’t realize is that stories were verbally conveyed long before they were ever written down.

Consider the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad. Both of these epic poems were told orally (and sung) long before they were written down because many people at the time were illiterate. These are two of the earliest-known great works of literature, and they got their start via oral storytelling.

Even today, long after literacy has become a prevalent part of society and the printed page is widely distributed, we still read aloud to our children. And there are countless sources out there that sing the praises of parents who do because of the many benefits that it offers kids.

According to readaloud.org, “Children who are read aloud to by parents get a head start in language and literacy skills and go to school better prepared.”

Sure, one could argue that orally consuming stories is okay for those who are illiterate but that those who can read, should. That brings me to my next point.

Reading isn’t easy for everyone. I learned to read at a very young age, and continued reading voraciously until I went to college and majored in English. Then, ironically, my reading slowed considerably.

While I’m not dyslexic and don’t have any learning disorders related to reading, I find that when my mind is completely overwhelmed and full, I’m unable to focus on reading for longer than about five minutes at a time. Some people can use reading as an escape, and I used to be one of them. But sadly, I’m not anymore.

However, I am able to use audiobooks as an escape. Weirdly enough, I’m a not an auditory learner, but somehow, audiobooks just work for me. I can clean the house, go on a walk, or sit and crochet while listening, and I’m able to focus and recall much better than if I were merely sitting and reading.

Some people have it way worse than I do, though. Some people have dyslexia or other learning disorders associated with reading that literally prevent them from reading and recalling effectively. Audiobooks could be a lifesaver for them.

So, no. I don’t think that listening to audiobooks is cheating. I think they’re a convenient and useful tool that allows people to consume a book that they’d otherwise never have the patience or time to actually sit down and read.

Sure, there’s a difference, and sure, there are downsides to each. But isn’t the goal to understand, interpret, and enjoy a piece of literature? At the end of the day, the way in which that’s accomplished really shouldn’t matter.