Sunday, February 11, 2007

Can an Audio Book Really Be Read?

Should listening to an audio version of a book be considered as having read that book? Audio books have been common in libraries in cassette and CD form for a long time now and they seem to be ever-increasing in popularity. I generally have an audio book in some stage of progress pretty much all the time despite the fact that it takes me close to two weeks to finish one of them because I do the bulk of my listening while driving. Now I'm even starting to see little self-contained gizmos in bookstores that are one-book players that include batteries and headphones. It's as simple as taking the book out of the package, plugging in the headphones and turning on the little player (Playaway Digital Audiobooks) .

I'm all for using MP3 players for studying and I applaud schools at all levels that encourage their teachers to make class notes and lectures available in MP3 format for repeat-listening by students. We have all become accustomed to multi-tasking (whether that's good or bad is a whole other discussion) so it makes perfect sense for students to reinforce class instruction at their leisure or while doing laundry or grocery shopping. But whether or not the easy availability of recorded books will encourage or discourage actual reading remains to be seen.

Now it appears that schools are going to have to make sure that the "playing field" is level for all students because not all of them can afford the recorded books or the players needed to utilize them.
When you compare traditional books to audiobooks, however, there's a big difference in price. A new paperback copy of Charlotte's Web costs $8 on Amazon, whereas the Playaway version costs $30, and an iTunes download of it costs $17. Many other iTunes book downloads cost more - for example, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice costs $26, and the more recent Harry Potter books cost $50. And that doesn't even count the cost of an MP3 player, for those students who don't have them.

The key is getting schools to help out with the costs, said O'Connor, the Spanish instructor at Tidewater Community College. Of the 16 students in O'Connor's class this semester, only two had their own MP3 players at the outset.
This isn't just happening in colleges, or even just in high schools. My two daughters are elementary school teachers and they both tell me that they see it happening as early as the second grade. But they tell me that they encourage their students to follow along to the recording with their own copy of the book as a way of reinforcing the reading skills that they are being taught in the classroom. They see the audio books as being positive influences on their young students.

I tend to think that "readers" will be as excited about books as ever before, that the growing availability of audio books will just make it possible for readers to consume more books than they otherwise would be able to consume. "Non-readers," at the very least, will use the audio books as study aids that allow them to remain non-readers while being exposed to the contents of books that would have otherwise always remained closed to them. Personally, I don't have any concern about audio books turning readers into non-readers. And, on the other hand, I see a positive influence on non-readers who might see enough of what they have been missing that they become excited about books for the first time in their lives. We live in interesting times.

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