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Can you “read” an audiobook?

Headphones and books

Certainly for those of limited sight, and particularly if using Braille isn’t a possibility, an audiobook may be the only way literature can be accessed. But for the rest of us? Have we “read” a book if we have heard, it rather than held a physical book or ebook reader in our hands?

With Lit & Phil members now having free access to thousands of title in the Naxos Audiobooks Website perhaps this is an appropriate time to wonder! [1]

Before there were books at all, experiencing a story through the ears from a storyteller was the only way to experience it. I’m sure many of us will remember being read to as a child and that’s the way almost all of us start to experience books. Even as an adult, having a story told or read to you can be an involving experience. Imagine yourself on Christmas Eve in the Cambridge study of M.R.James listening as he read one of his ghost stories - if everyone present had a copy and was reading it for themselves it would not be the same experience at all.

Studies have been done (of course!) on the differences between accessing a book through the eyes and the ears. An interesting take is in the podcast Two Guys on Your Head, where Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, talk about how our brains process information differently based on how we consume it. 

It seems that the memories you form differ based on the way you consume information. None are necessarily better or worse for your brain, they're just different  experiences. Markman even cited an experiment, conducted in his lab, which shows that when we hear proverbs, like "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," you're more likely to connect this to other proverbs that have the same deeper meaning. When you read that "squeaky wheel" proverb, you're more likely to be reminded of proverbs that have wheels in them; your brain picks out the literal elements. 

Why? It turns out that because you can't go back and re-read, when you listen you are more likely to extract the deeper meaning from things quicker.

They also use the example of laughter and comedy to show how audiobooks can sometimes elicit a more emotional response to the content. “It’s a more social experience” to hear the vocal nuances, sarcasm, etc that comes from hearing another human speak.

For a 2016 study, Rogowsky put her assumptions to the test. “I was a fan of audiobooks, but I always viewed them as cheating,” says Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. One group in her study listened to sections of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand, while a second group read the same parts on an e-reader. She included a third group that both read and listened at the same time. Afterward, everyone took a quiz designed to measure how well they had absorbed the material. “We found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously,” Rogowsky says.

And of course there’s the question of the difference between a “real” book and a book read on an ebook reader! Perhaps as Tim Parks writes: “ The ebook, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging everything but our focus on where are are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has get to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience”.[2]

The website Bookriot has an interesting post on the Joys of Reading Books on Audio and there are many other articles available with a simple search.

All opinions, views welcome below!

[1] If you are a member of the Lit & Phil please send us an email with your membership number to library@litandphil.org.uk or use the contact form here.

[2] Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books Tim Parks Pub. Harvill Secker (6 Nov. 2014)

About the author

Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey is a composer and arranger, is a member of the Board of the Lit & Phil and chair of the Music Committee.

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